300 (Dir. Zach Snyder, 2006)
"This isn't going to be over quickly and you will not enjoy it." - Theron (Dominic West) My sentiments exactly. The Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is told in tortuously tedious terms here. Based on Frank Miller's graphic novel, 300 is relentlessly stylised beyond any level of actual human connection. Much of the time it resembles a vacous video game or a glib expensive TV or historically themed magazine ad with it's artificial gold or silver-hued grainy surface.
A passionless sex scene early in the film is shot just like a Calvin Klein Obsession commercial. King Leonidas (a mightily melodramatic Gerald Butler) leads the obsessively dedicated but small army of 300 Spartans, who with their red capes and bare chiseled chests march through the hills looking like the scariest Chippendales review ever. In this gallant Kamikaze mission they take on waves of thousands of attacking Persians in stop/start MATRIX-ish methods like frozen in mid-air assault positions and slo-mo floating droplets of blood all done as CGI composition on top of blue-screen backgrounds. None of it feels or looks real, and I know that's precisely the point but I never felt anything for any of the characters and none of the countless deaths - many by spear - pierced through my bored indifference. With none of the soul of the best action war epics 300 dies just as dreary a death as the heroes it depicts.
Now some more new Release DVD reviews.
TIDELAND (Dir. Terry Gilliam, 2006) Only film fans who haven't been paying attention would be unaware of Terry Gilliam's near complete ostracisation from the world of commercial film.
The ex-Monty Python member is notorious for ferociously fighting major studio heads, plentiful production problems, and wildly going over budget leaving numerous projects stalled in development hell and making him ineligible to direct movies he would be perfect for - like one or two of the HARRY POTTER movies for example.
If one were to put on the DVD for TIDELAND having not read anything about it (and with little to no promotion that's very possible) they may be surprised to see Gilliam at the beginning of the film giving a disclaimer/introduction. In a shadowy grainy black and white headshot that's almost as scary an image as anything in TIDELAND Gilliam states : "Many of you are not going to like this film. Many of you luckily are going to love it. And then there are many of you who won't know what to think when the film finishes but hopefully you will be thinking."
Gilliam goes on to explain that the film is seen through the eyes of an innocent child and that while viewing it one should forget what they know as a cynical adult. Easier said than done but once TIDELAND gets going it casts a long lasting spell as potent as one's most fantastical child-hood day dream (or nightmare). The child in question in this adaptation of Mitch Cullin's 2000 novel is Jeliza-Rose (10 year old Jodelle Ferland) who has a SHINING-like habit of talking to her index finger alternately wearing 5 different doll-heads who each have bitchy personalities and voices of their own only heard by her.
When her junkie mother Queen Gunhilda (a typically crazy Jennifer Tilly) dies early on from a heroin overdose, Jeliza -Rose's father Noah (Jeff Bridges doing what appears to be a Kris Kristofferson impression to ward off comparisons with "The Dude") buses them out to the middle of nowhere (actually Saskatchewan) to hide out in his long deceased Mother's abandoned farmhouse. Then things start to get weird. Before long Jeliza-Rose meets her neighbors - the one-eyed witchy Dell (Janet McTeer) and the epileptic Dickens (Brendan Fletcher) who excitedely plots destruction by way of dynamite derailing a passing passenger train that he thinks is a monster shark.
Noah also dies of an overdose, from a fix prepared by his dutiful daughter no less and Dell performs taxidermy on his corpse so it can still join them at a place at the dinner table come mealtimes - "he looks like a burrito" Jeliza-Rose exclaims. It's all seen in tilted camera angles and wide panoramic shots that enhance the orange wheat field landscape.
The stark reality that originally grounds the film continually threatens to escape into Jeliza-Rose's Alice In Wonderland-influenced dementia. The scenes between Fletcher and Ferland come close to having inappropriate sexual overtones but remembering Gilliam's warning and sensing the true tone should eliminate any uncomfortable tension.
TIDELAND appears to be the worst reviewed movie Gilliam has ever made.
It has a 26% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.com (the site that tailies up the major critic's ratings) and the words "ugly", "pointless", "murky" and especially "unwatchable" come up in just about every review. Well I'm going against the tide here - this is a moving and darkly beautiful masterpiece. Ferland wonderfully carries the movie with even her doll’s head’s (and one squirrel) voices playing the right heartbreaking notes and every scene is perversely perfect in it’s construction. So as Giliam predicted I am luckily among the few who loved it.
HALF NELSON (Dir. Ryan Fleck, 2006)
A young African American female student named Drey (Shareeka Epps) at an inner-city high school walks in on her white 20-something-year old teacher Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) smoking crack in the girl's locker room. They form an unlikely friendship and get worrisome windows into each other's troubled lives.
Epps is growing up too fast in a world of dealers and street crime while Gosling (Oscar nominated though everyone knew he wouldn't win) is in a state of stunted growth muddling his conviction for teaching Civil rights history and coaching the girl's soccer team. More tension arrives in the form of Anthony Mackie as the impeccably smooth Frank - a pusher and family friend of Drey's that Dunne warns Drey to stay away from. A stilted confrontation between the 2 men occurs but the level of conflict is low and surprisingly speech-free.
Purposely gritty and well acted HALF NELSON works as an exercise in realism with no sappy wrap-ups or enforced morals. Well acted with a sober intensity throughout makes one feel that they've spent an hour and 40-something minutes with some real people and that's very rare these days.
FAST FOOD NATION
(Dir. Richard Linklater, 2006)
It would be easy to label this a brother or sister film to THANK YOU FOR SMOKING as a dramatized indictment of big corrupt corporations and their consequences on everyday people but FAST FOOD NATION contains none of that film's semi-successful sense of satire, cynicism or exaggerated allegory.
Taking Eric Schlosser's best selling muckraking non-fiction book and throwing out all but the title and it's central issues, Linklater gives us several tangled narratives - unfortunately none compelling enough to really have impact. In one thread that is dropped half-way through a Mickey's (a fictional McDonald's type chain) exec.
Don Anderson (Greg Kinnear) investigates claims that manure may be in the beef. In another, Mexican immigrants (Wilmer Valderrama, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Ana Claudia Talancn) work at an incredibly unsavory meat proccessing plant and have their lives compromised at every turn.
Then there's also Amber (Ashley Johnson) - a teenage employee of a Mickey's that is developing activist ideals while her co-workers plot a possible robbery of their own establishment. Not to forget the pointed cameo by Bruce Willis or the pointless cameo by Linklater regular Ethan Hawke.
The strong cast (including Kris Kristofferson, Luis Guzman, Patricia Arquette, and Avril Lavigne!) and Linklater's mastery of dialogue driven scenes is what this movie has got going for it but the overall unpleasantness and lack of new insight into this material makes it unappetizing in a different way than it set out to be.
Seeing the factory killing floor in action in any context is disturbing and eye-opening, here though it doesn't have the intended effect of enhancing all the loose threads. FAST FOOD NATION has its civil conscience in the right place, sad that it's cinematic heart isn't.