Friday, March 25, 2005

MARIA FULL OF GRACE - a slight but interesting movie about drug mules

MARIA FULL OF GRACE is a simple film with a powerful message. Thankfully, the writer/director chooses to highlight issues through character and empathy rather than polemic. It tells the tale of a young girl in Colombia who does harsh work in a rose packing plant. Her rebellious temperament leads her to quit her work and discard the feckless boyfriend who has gotten her pregnant. She is, like so many teenagers around the world, looking for an escape from her dead-end life. The difference is that in a society as corrupt as Colombia's, her naivety, rebellion and search for something better leads her to becoming a drug mule on a flight to New York.

The brilliance of the movie is that it does not deal in heroines and evil men. Maria is not like the Blessed Virgin - free of sin - but a normal teenager. She makes good and bad decisions but they are that - free choices. She is not a victim in the conventional sense of the word. She is not forced to mule by a mean, Hollywood-movie, drug-dealer but by a more complex nexus of circumstance. Similarly, when she gets to the States, the immigration officials aren't mean - they are just tired professionals doing a job.

It is hard to find flaws with a simple movie that tells its story honestly. The material is presented credibly, without prejudice. The largely unprofessional cast of actors does a good job, notably Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria.
The only real problem I have with this movie is its title which seems a needless provocation - neither reflecting the material covered nor the characterisation of Maria in the movie.

MARIA FULL OF GRACE played Sundance and London 2004. It is on release in France and the UK and opens in Germany on April 21st 2005.

Friday, March 11, 2005

NINE SONGS - a failed but noble experiment

NINE SONGS is a bold experiment in cinema by acclaimed and path-finding director, Michael Winterbottom. Filmed on hi-def video, the movie follows the relationship between two characters from first meeting to break-up, punctuated by nine songs at concerts that they attend. The twist is that the evolution of the relationship is expressed through the couple's sexual experiences. These are depicted with a breath-taking intimacy that is, despite the explicit content, not pornographic (to my mind at least.) Having said that, I found NINE SONGS to be a movie that I admired rather than enjoyed. Without the conventional narrative devices I found it hard to empathise much with the characters. After a while the explicit sex became rather tedious as the movie descended into another round of cool music, drug-taking, sex, limited dialogue. It just seems to me that if you want to make a point about how relationships evolve and make it perceptive and interesting, you probably need more than a bit of (largely unimaginative) sex on screen. It will be interesting to see whether, in ten years time, this movie is remembered for the explicit sex or the cool footage of new bands like Franz Ferdinand.

NINE SONGS premiered at Cannes 2004 and goes on limited release in the UK today. It goes on release in Austria in May 2005 and in the US in July 2005.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

HITCH - formulaic rom-com saved by Will Smith

HITCH is a paint-by-numbers romantic-comedy featuring Will Smith and Eva Mendes, Kevin James and Carmen Diaz-lite, Amber Valetta. Smith plays a “date doctor” who specialises in coaching men with low self-esteem on how to appear attractive to their dream-women. He is helping the earnest, sweet, but unattractive Kevin-James-character win the misunderstood social butterfly Amber-Valetta-character over. Cue lots of “odd couple” type jokes. Meanwhile he is also wooing the Eva-Mendes character. This chick has a lot of trust issues, and is also the gossip columnist who exposes the James-Valetta relationship. Cue lots of comedy-misunderstandings.

Now, I have nothing against romantic comedies per se. It just so happens that the majority of romantic-comedies produced by Hollywood studios are formulaic superficial nonsense, usually designed as vehicles for some cute
star and directed by a talentless hack. In addition, they mostly have plots that rely on key members of the cast forming ridiculous misunderstandings of each other’s motives and actions that in the real world would be cleared up in a second, but in the tortuous world of celluloid dating take a more marketable ninety minutes to unravel. In the case of HITCH, the hack director is Andy Tennant, who seems to specialise in these disposable comedies. (I submit that monstrously flawed Reese Witherspoon-Josh Lucas vehicle, SWEET HOME ALABAMA into evidence for the prosecution.)

Having said all this, I actually rather enjoyed HITCH and that is down to one factor alone: Will Smith. It is testament to how charming Will Smith is that he can single-handedly sell you a movie that is the utterly formulaic. In fact, he is so charming that he can almost makes us believe that men would actually pay the “date doctor” to learn cheesy lines like, “life is not the amount of breaths you take, it's the moments that take your breath away.” Or that women would be impressed by lines like: “Never lie, steal, cheat, or drink. But if you must lie, lie in the arms of the one you love. If you must steal, steal away from bad company. If you must cheat, cheat death. And if you must drink, drink in the moments that take your breath away.” As you can see from these *choice* quotations, HITCH is a really schmaltzy movie. Its appeal rests solely on casting Will Smith in the lead role. I think that alone just about saves it from the trashcan of cinematic history. But, it’s a close call.

HITCH is already on release in the US, Germany and Austria and opens in the UK today. It opens in France next week.

Friday, March 04, 2005

HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITECASTLE – superior gross-out comedy

HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITECASTLE is the perfect Friday night, gross-out, frat-boy comedy. It has a neat but simple plot, lots of great one-liners, some good visual gags, and a happy ending. This is not rocket science – just comedy that works. The basic idea is that Harold and Kumar – to young guys just out of college – get stoned, get the munchies, see an ad for Whitecastle hamburgers on TV, and decide to go to Whitecastle and eat those luscious burgers. That’s it! On the way, they get sidetracked by psychos, the need to buy more pot, an invitation to a student party and other sundry classic plot devices. And then, finally, they get to Whitecastle. I’d love to tell you that they learn a lot about themselves along the way, and there are some nods to a more profound message in the movie. Harold is a pent-up young investment banker who learns to say “f*ck it, let’s just have a good time.” Kumar is guy who is fighting against his family’s desire for him to become a doctor, just like his dad and brother, who eventually realises that rebellion aside, he actually *wants* to be a doctor. But in all honesty, I would be struggling to call these plot strands “character development”. Fundamentally, this is just a great buddy movie, performed by two guys with superb comic timing and good chemistry – Kal Penn and John Cho. Oh yeah, I should also mention that it features cool cameos from Ryan Reynolds and cult-status self mockery from Neil Patrick Harris a.k.a Doogie Howser MD. Somehow it doesn’t sound very funny when I type this up, but the line “Doogie Howser stole my car!” had me rolling in the aisle. Genius.

HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITECASTLE was released in the US last year. Re-branded as HAROLD AND KUMAR GET THE MUNCHIES, the movie opens in the UK today.