Capsules for 2005

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Capsule reviews for movies released in the U.S. in 2005. Includes all the movies of 2005 I've seen that I did not write a full review for.

Shopgirl
Director: Anand Tucker
Rating: 6/10
I like stories about relationships, so Shopgirl would seem to be right up my alley. It isn't, however, particularly insightful nor transporting -- it's a bittersweet relationship story presented in a glass case, with an accompanying music box, but it doesn't really earn this treatment. Part of the problem comes from focus issues -- Claire Danes plays the main character, but Steve Martin's characcter seems to demand equal attention towards the end, while Jason Schwartzman's character remains something of a cipher. It feels as if it's written from the point-of-view of a man seeking atonement for hurting women he cared about in the past. Yes, I know Martin himself wrote both the screenplay and the novella on which it's based, and I'm not saying either this or that about him, but that's just how it feels, and because of that it's not as convincing a relationship study as it could've been. The movie is strangely detached when it needs the viewer to latch on the most. It's a nice try at sad romance; it just seems to have concentrated more on the fanciness of its dinnerware than on serving a satisfying meal on them. It taps on ideas of how shallow relationships are easy refuge for the lonely, but ends up being too neat and simplistic to get those ideas sold. (added 10/20/2005)

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants
Director: Ken Kwapis
Rating: 7/10
Traveling Pants may not aspire to be more than pop moviemaking aimed towards an underserved demographic (girls and young women), but one respects its approach in assuming its audience is at least intelligent and emotionally mature. In other words, if anyone gripes about it being another obvious girly movie, it would be fair to point out that this isn't some Hilary Duff or Lindsay Lohan vehicle, lined with bubblegum and fueled by spastic energy. Traveling Pants is a gentle coming-of-age story -- actually four of them, since it involves four friends (Amber Tamblyn, Alexis Bledel, America Ferrera, Blake Lively -- all leads of their own TV shows at one point or another) and their parallel adventures during the first summer they all spend apart from each other. The titular pants serves as a gimmick simply symbolizing their unity. The stories are not equal and each have their own weaknesses, not the least of which is that they feel, naturally, somewhat underwritten and, as such, fall victim to doses of corniness. But the stories are delivered so sincerely that their credibilities do hold up, and this is helped by the actresses' believable turns, with Ferrera being the best of the bunch. A little more than just a summer placeholder for girls, Traveling Pants tries to reach out broadly to show that the experience of growing up is a shared one, no matter how different each one is from the other or how familiar they collectively may be to everyone. (added 8/18/2008)

The Squid and the Whale
Director: Noah Baumbach
Rating: 9/10
I love The Squid and the Whale's tagline -- "Joint custody blows" -- because there's almost no better way to put what this movie communicates so humorously and painfully well. A literary New York couple divorces and their two sons are psychologically victimized in the process of their tug-of-war. The movie shows a fine attention to character detail as the two kids take sides -- the teenage one (Jesse Eisenberg), oblivious to his own confusion, emulates his father (Jeff Daniels), an arrogant academic snob of an ex-successful author, while the younger son (Owen Kline), perceptive but resentful, is drawn to his bitter, exasperated mother (Laura Linney). Each of the players lashes out in his/her own way, and a biting comedy emerges from the truths in the characters' confused actions, brought brilliantly to life by each of the actors (honestly, I've never seen Daniels this good). That the story is set in the '80's is a bonus as the environment is acutely realized, and the look of the movie is appropriately messy, almost grimy, to match its subject. How fitting that Wes Anderson should be listed as a producer of this film -- it feels like one of his pictures without the subversive fairy tale gloss. Rather, The Squid and the Whale prefers to be raw and bare in putting all its glorious insecurities on display. (added 12/23/2005)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002; released in U.S. in 2005)
Director: Park Chanwook
Rating: 7/10
Desperation leads to trouble, crime doesn't pay, and revenge only breeds needless destruction. You won't learn these things for the first time by watching Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, but the movie is happy just to provide an elaborate illustration for you. Park Chanwook's kicker to a "revenge trilogy" (Oldboy counts as the second) is like a more gruesome Coen Brothers crime story and carries similar trademarks -- carefully composed visuals, a very black sense of humor, and perpetrators whose primary human weakness is that they can't anticipate everything. But, like Oldboy, this movie seems to revel in its own sick violence for sick violence's sake -- the movie wants to show the meaninglessness of vengeance, but also uses this as an excuse to indulge in creative pain and gore, especially towards the end. Nothing gives this mindset away more than the fact that almost every killing here is carried out with a knife (or an otherwise sharp object -- the only exception involves electricity). A story of multiple murders without guns? Well, those wouldn't leave quite the same interesting scars now, would they? Nonetheless, polished filmmaking skills can be found here -- it's executed with style and it sets up a situation that provides some food for thought (e.g., the vengeance impulse not so much for justice as it is for the illusion of control that distracts a person from the sense of random loss) -- though overall the movie isn't as memorable as Oldboy, mainly because none of the characters here come anywhere close to having Choi Min-sik's charisma. (added 1/26/2006)

Tarzan II
Director: Brian Smith
Rating: 6/10
I felt conflicted after watching Tarzan II. Yes, it's another needless Disney sequel, but it also happens to be animated pretty decently -- perhaps the best effort yet of this Disney animation division. What makes me sad is the realization now that when I refer to this division, it will be the only division cranking out traditional hand-drawn animated features. The main animation unit is busy rendering 3-D with their computers, while the straight-to-video department puts out imitations of the old-school work. Should I be happy, then, that they're improving and, thus, supplying us with at least competent traditional animation of any kind? My answer is: no. They can still do better. Write more original material instead of recycling the umpteenth version of "be yourself" to the kids. With strong scripts and fresh, creative ideas, the 2-D department has the potential to be a force to be reckoned with. Look at this -- isn't it silly? All this hope from Tarzan II, which, after all, is really just another wallflower sequel. I'd better tell myself to keep dreaming. (added 7/28/2005)

TransAmerica
Director: Duncan Tucker
Rating: 6/10
TransAmerica is a road movie with a transexual twist, but it pretty much leaves it at that. Felicity Huffman does an incredible disappearing act playing a man who is only days away from his sex change operation, but who first finds himself trekking westward across the country with a delinquent son whom he's never properly introduced himself to. Unfortunately, the two characters are, respectively, a sad sack and a smart-mouthed self-absorbed teen. They make for rather dreary company in a movie that already lacks cinematic energy -- the scenes tend to sit there, often relying on the humorous awkwardness of each new situation to carry them. Some of them are pretty funny and some of them feel corny. And asking Huffman to save the film from both this and the unsurprising theme of misfits looking for acceptance and family might just be too much for her. But she does well in drawing pathos with a character that would rather just be a wallflower, and this plus the spectacle of simply seeing her play this part mean she's the anchor of the movie. If TransAmerica achieves anything, it reinforces the idea that the world's marginalized citizens just want to fit in like everyone else -- not a new message, but it does remind viewers that self-conscious transgenders are amongst those citizens too. (added 12/1/2005)

The Transporter 2
Director: Louis Leterrier
Rating: 6/10
The Transporter 2 continues the tone of its predecessor, relishing its absurd action and delivering it with a knowing sense of silliness. Things are a little bit too much this time, though -- to say all elements are exaggerated would be a gross understatement. I hesitate to use the word "cartoon" to describe anything (I have too much respect for cartoons), but I can't think of a more applicable term in this case. The problem here is that this all-out approach robs the movie of any sense of dimension -- human, story, even energy -- and simply presents a series of sequences to gawk at. In the first Transporter, we at least get the amusement of getting to know hero Frank Martin, whose frustrations we could actually empathize with; here, he's just in perpetual motion, an unstoppable superman. Yes, there is something cathartic about watching a cool, invincible good guy beating up on evil characters, but that's all this outing has to offer. Truthfully, this might be all the movie needs when it has Statham holding it up -- he continues to play the role with the right amount of cool and irony. The bad part here is that he's counterbalanced by some pretty stupid supporting characters, and yes I do count the villainous machine gun-toting punk henchwoman played by Katie Nauta among them -- she's too laughable an attempt at a sexy psycho, GoldenEye's Onatopp without Famke Janssen's heat. That kind of sums up the movie: the action sequences are glossy fun but they're just there, missing the heat. (added 9/1/2005)

Tropical Malady (2004; released in U.S. in 2005)
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Rating: 8/10
Based on his films so far, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has been labeled "experimental," and my first foray into his works, Tropical Malady, immediately showed me how fitting the label is. It's a movie split into two halves -- the first tracks a young soldier (Banlop Lomnoi) and his burgeoning love affair with a country boy (Sakda Kaewbuadee); the second abruptly details the soldier's chase of a tiger-monster through a neighboring jungle. At the start, the film states a thesis about how humans keep their animal sides in control; it then shows the development of love in an evironment of civilized mundanity, then juxtaposes this with the primal passion and emotions of an animal world. The second half is more extreme in its boundary-pushing and therefore displays greater strengths and weaknesses. It utilizes a metaphor so dense that it weakens its organic accessibility (indeed, some things require explaining from title cards). Yet, the photography of the jungle, the framing of its scenes, and its detailed sound mix successfully create an immersive feeling of anxiety and awe. The division of the two halves is pronounced and disruptive -- one wonders what puppy love has anything to do with being devoured by a tiger later -- but the filmmaking is assured and focused, reaching for abstraction and poetry. Watching Tropical Malady is therefore a slighty frustrating yet wholly fascinating experience. (added 12/31/2005)

The Upside of Anger
Director: Mike Binder
Rating: 7/10
When the husband of an upper-middle class household skips out on it, the wife (Joan Allen) and their four daughters (college-aged to high school-aged) must cope with a new family dynamic, strongly driven by the mother's newly unleashed bitter emotions. The film succeeds because it's a strong performance piece -- it could have been stage-acted with equal, perhaps even potentially more vivid, panache. My only concern is that the central performance -- Allen's -- is yet another example of the middle-aged actress having only "realistic" neurotic women available as meaty roles. I suppose I long for movies in which veteran actresses can play some fantastic, imaginative characters, and still take center stage. In the meantime, Allen makes the most of her role here (the tiny scene where she walks in on two certain people in bed with one another is a wondrously sharp statement of total acting commitment) along with the rest of the supporting cast, which includes a charming turn by Kevin Costner. The ending is kind of strange, but it leads to the idea that anger is neither best constantly suppressed nor constantly expressed, but, like all things, might be better handled with understanding and a balance between the two. (added 4/25/2005)

Walk the Line
Director: James Mangold
Rating: 7/10
Anyone calling Walk the Line this year's Ray wouldn't be at all wrong; it's actually fascinating how much of it coincides with 2004's Jamie Foxx-fueled biopic, from the childhood trauma of losing a brother to the struggles with drugs through the years of fame. "How to Make a Music Biopic" is an overused template that needs to be replaced like an old pair of shoes, but that also means you can count on the positive standbys, like terrific lead acting. Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash and Reese Witherspoon plays June Carter; both are amazing, doing their own vocals and playing their own instruments for the film's numbers. The story centers around them, taking a look at Cash's tortured courtship of his favorite performing partner. I wasn't sure I was rooting for the umsympathetically portrayed Man in Black to succeed in gaining Carter's hand, but the film has the benefit of hindsight, wherein its audience knows the couple had one of the most enduring marriages in all of the entertainment celebrity world. The fair bit of modesty in the film's storytelling goal lends it its air of intimacy, as does James Mangold's tight close-ups of faces constantly racked by mixed emotions. With its lead stars up to the task of lifting up a rather old formula, Walk the Line manages to do just that. (added 11/21/2005)

Wedding Crashers
Director: David Dobkin
Rating: 6/10
The poster for Wedding Crashers says it all, really -- simply Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, looking sharp and ready to have a fun time. They're the ingredients that make the movie work as much as it does, which is, rather disappointingly, not as much as it ought to. Somewhat unsure of itself, it starts out strong and raucous, then drifts waywardly to a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy situation before heading into the stretch with a confused, lost look. The promise of its raunchy spirit is eventually overthrown by a gooey sentimentality. It's a shame because the wedding crashing stuff is fresh and memorable, yet it's all frontloaded -- why end with a girl-is-marrying-the-wrong-guy love story we've all seen a hundred times before? Still, it gives us the promise of Wilson and Vaughn possibly teaming up again in the future -- hopefully with material that can work in a better arc. (added 7/28/2005)

Wheel of Time (2003; released in U.S. in 2005)
Director: Werner Herzog
Rating: 7/10
Werner Herzog clearly communicates an outsider-looking-in status in Wheel of Time, his documentary about a regular Buddhist event known as the Kalachakra initiation in Bodh Gaya, India. Hundreds of thousands of the faithful gather there for the "painting" of the mandala, a "wheel of time" painstakingly composed of grains of colored sand, all presided over by the Dalai Lama. Herzog makes no pretensions about the fact that he and his film's audience are first and foremost visiting and observing. His camera stares at sights unfamiliar to Westerners, including the journey of pilgrims on foot where a prostration is made at every step, the magnitude of the throngs of gatherers, and, in general, the strict ritualistic devotion of these people. Herzog delivers a relatively objective narration for a film with such a subjective perspective -- it gawks in fascination at things it assumes its audience may never have been able to conceive. This causes the movie to lack a bit of depth -- it doesn't penetrate the surface because it inherently understands so little about what's behind the Buddhist rituals. But it's all very candid (often, his randomly filmed subjects turn to stare and smile at the camera) and humble, and we the viewers are at least allowed to react and absorb in our own ways. (added 7/6/2006)

The White Diamond
Director: Werner Herzog
Rating: 8/10
Werner Herzog finds a new little tale of obsession to film in The White Diamond, where aeronautical engineer Graham Dorrington is determined to fly a self-designed airship above an unexplored forest canopy near a giant waterfall in Guyana. He has a personal reason for completing this dream, one that involves a past tragedy and a chance for redemption. Meanwhile, a native assistant named Marcus fantasizes about how wondrous it must be to have the privilege of being able to float in the sky on such a machine. Once again, Herzog does his best to observe events (although he includes himself, the official documenter, as part of it, featuring a moment when he argues with Dorrington about safety), and he gets fortunate, wonderful results -- moments of achievement, clarification, perspective, and beauty. The film is one small story and how it can be presented and interpreted to mean so much, giving significance to a more introspective definition of triumph. (added 7/6/2006)

The World's Fastest Indian
Director: Roger Donaldson
Rating: 7/10
I watched this the day after I watched Murderball and it occurred to me that a similar message was being delivered by the two movies. For Murderball, I wrote, "It's an ode to the indomitable stubbornness of people, really, to pursue what gets them off, no matter what it takes," and that could apply here too. Fastest Indian is the true story of Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins), who, as an over-60 New Zealander in the '60's, travels to Bonneville, Utah to break the land speed record in his tinkered-up 1920 Indian motorcylce. The guy's a bit old-fashioned and quite charming, which works in his favor during his low-funded low-tech journey to his destination, depending very strongly on the kindness of strangers. The movie feels quite corny in this regard, and it spends a lot of time on this journey before it gets to the thrilling high-speed stuff, which means it's a crowdpleaser with some pacing issues. It also stands well as a spiritedly fun performance showcase for Hopkins -- if you want to see what I meant by his being on auto-pilot in this year's Proof, watch that, then watch Fastest Indian, and you'll know the difference between punching a clock and getting into your work. (added 12/15/2005)

xXx: State of the Union
Director: Lee Tamahori
Rating: 7/10
OK, I fully admit this is my first true guilty pleasure of 2005. It's what you expect it to be -- cacophonous, ridiculous, and overblown, but it got on my good side with two moves: first, in several little exchanges, it actually dogs on the first movie and its hero as an easily dismissible parody of extreme sports (which they were); and second, it has Ice Cube doing the cheesy action-hero schtick. I could watch him scowl all day. The movie is a rendition of the modernized, overamped James Bond movie, but without the pretense of expressing sophistication. It's also weirdly political, if not entirely coherent about it -- something about the irony of the U.S. government being saved and fought for by a class of citizens that it barely acknowledges the existence of. xXx: State of the Union is the latest in a line of 2005 movies aimed towards the African-American market (after Hitch, Be Cool, Guess Who, Beauty Shop) that places emphasis on the awareness of their growing cultural presence in America, both as consumers and providers. In all of them, black culture doesn't exist insularly within the movie; it explicitly exists as a foil to white culture, thus becoming a comment about their relationship. I find it all very interesting -- interesting enough for me to confess that I actually got a kick out of a flick that's only just proud to be loud. (added 4/28/2005)

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©Jeffrey Chen, 2005

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