Friday, November 28, 2008

My New Home; House of Sand and Fog; Transsiberian; A Life Less Ordinary; Wag the Dog

Yes, I have bought a house here in chilly Halifax, Nova Scotia, and I am moving in this weekend. It's a huge move and a big commitment to this city and this weather, but it is also exhilarating. In Korea we owned a few apartments, but they were brand-new, cookie-cutter units in 29-story buildings in clusters of identical monoliths. There was no history or ambiance in the units, and no tactile involvement with the structures themselves in terms of being able to see and feel the lives of the people who had inhabited the homes before you or in terms of hands on maintenance and upkeep.

There is plenty of both in my new building, and I am sure that the latter will become a bane before too long!

No, the property is more than 90 years old and oozes ambiance and history from its creaking Douglas Fir flooring to the original trim that skirts its nine-foot ceilings. I have added a few photos to give you an idea of its character...

I will occupy the first-floor one-bedroom apartment, and am looking for a tenant for the second-floor two-bedroom unit. The third floor is rented to a young lady who seems comfortable and happy to stay on.

I am sure that this development will mean that my stream of movie reviews will be punctuated from time to time with updates on the trials and tribulations of landlord/home ownership, so stay tuned.

Which brings us to my latest movie reviews, which I plan to keep brief (as I always plan)...

House of Sand and Fog (Vadeem Perelman, 2003) (Home) I originally saw House of Sand and Fog when it was released in the theater in Seoul, and left the film amazed at its power and heavy import - and more in love with Jennifer Connelly than ever (I'd say yes if she were to propose).

On second viewing I have to confirm this initial impression. Like many of the films I have written about of late (Rachel Getting Married in particular), this is a character drama that chronicles the clash that occurs when strong personalities are placed in an emotional and confrontational situation.

This is also a film in which those characters are in most cases not terribly likable, but at the same time not entirely unsympathetic. Think the young recovered (or not so recovered) alcoholic who allows her life to crumble through apathy and then claws to get it back,; the police officer who uses her desperation as a channel for his own discontent; or the Iranian exile who is really just trying to look after his family and prevent their suffering, but in the process is blind to the suffering of others.

And this leads to unthinkable tragedy that is Shakespearean in its proportions, and hangs over the head of the viewer like a dark cloud in the hours that follow it. Yes, I will go so far as to say that this is a very depressing film - but will give it top marks in the same breathe and recommend it highly based on its accomplishment in film making.

Top marks also go to the cast, with Kingsley acting at his top calibre, which is awesome to behold (especially for an actor that wastes his talent in so many mediocre films), and Connelly showing the talent she displayed in Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream. Props to the supporting cast also, with Ron Eldard playing the sympathetic/sleazy cop beautifully and Shohreh Aghdashloo embodying the confusion and fear of Kingsley's wife.

On second viewing I had only one criticism, which is of the score. This is a heavy and sombre film, but it rendered virtually elegiac by a funerary soundtrack that weighs on the viewer to the point of being emotionally draining. I don't mean to suggest that this is not in line with the film's intent, but that the acting is strong and the characters clearly convey this feeling/idea without the need for such an oppressive score.

Hopefully my home ownership will be filled with more sunshine and smiles :)

Transsiberian (Brad Anderson, 2008) (home) I want to talk about Transsiberian briefly because, as I alluded to above, this is one example of Ben Kingsley wasting his abundant talent on a mediocre film.

OK, maybe I am being too harsh. Young married couple (Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer) are taking the Transsiberian to Europe as an adventurous way to return home from a church mission to China. They meet young, drug smuggling couple (50% of which is Kate Mara) and corrupt Moscow police investigator (Kingsley) and the adventure ratchets up a level, with steamy, adulterous affections, attempted sexual battery, kidnapping, torture (happily not shown) and murder most foul.

Only the movie doesn't really ratchet up a notch, which is a shame. Its a decent, more-or-less engaging (if completely conventional) plot taking place in exotic and beautiful climes. The acting is fine, with Kingley putting in a solid performance and Harrelson doing his usual adequate job - he is, after all, in many great films, its just that none of them are great because he is in them.

The film was lauded at Sundance, but it never got me excited or interested or involved. Not to say it was boring or bad, just that it was merely a mildly intriguing way to pass a few hours. With so many great films to chose between (such as House of Sand and Fog, off the top of my head) I'd say give this one a pass, but if your partner or friend already brought it home from the video store, don't castigate him or her too vociferously!

A Life Less Ordinary (Danny Boyle, 1997) (home) I first saw this film at the Cineplus Theatre near exit 6 of Apkujong Station in Seoul, Korea. At that time Cineplus was a big deal, as it was the first really modern theater to open in Seoul, with comfy seats imported from America and Dolby surround sound. I can't count the number of films that I watched at Cineplus over my nine-year stint in Seoul...

This movie, like Wag the Dog (see below), has assumed epic comedy proportions in my mind. I recall my friend Julien and I laughing our asses off in the otherwise eerily quiet cinema - I don't think the Korean audience really got the humor.

But humorous it is, with Boyle teaming up once again with John Hodge, who also wrote the sublime black comedy Shallow Grave. In the character positions we have Ewan McGregor (also of Shallow Grave) when he was still channelling the naive joy in acting that I think he recovered in Moulin Rouge after having trampled it thoroughly in the lackluster Star Wars I, II and III. Across from McGregor we have Cameron Diaz, in a very early "precocious and slightly dangerous blond" role that fits her to a T - but before she was typecast into that particular T.

The two play star-crossed lovers who meet amid one of the most thoroughly botched kidnapping imaginable (in fact, the Korean title was "Hostage") and slowly and reluctantly fall in love - with a little help.

You see, God is pretty pissed off that divorce and infidelity seem to have eradicated true love, and he tasks the archangel Gabriel (Dan Hedaya, who none of you know by name but have all seen a million times and liked) with sending a few angels down to earth to nurture the spark (or lack thereof) between one young couple into a flame of love. The young couple he has in mind are, you guessed it, McGregor and Diaz, and the angels - well played by perennial favorite Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo - have their hands full.

This is one funny film, that I recommend wholeheartedly for belly laughs and general glee.

Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson, 1997) (Dad's place). Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Anne Heche, Dennis Leary, Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson, William H. Macy, Jim Belushi, Jay Leno, Kirstin Dunst, Merle Haggard....need I say more?

I will, but am getting pretty blog fatigued, so this will be brief...I hope...

Wag the Dog was amazingly topical, presenting a situation in which a Presidential incumbant faces a sexual scandal in the last weeks before an election. A movie producer (Hoffman) is brought in to "produce" a war between the USA and Albania as a distraction from the scandal. In real life, the release coincided almost perfectly with Clinton's decision to bomb Kosovo while the Lewinsky scandal boiled in Washington. They say that art imitate life, but that life imitates TV....

Wag the Dog is interesting as a historical document in this regard, but is also intriguing as a comment on technology in our lives and the theater. The digital effects used to "create" the war with Albania were stunning and even slightly scary to audiences in the late 1990s, which had not yet abandoned their belief in the axiom "seeing is believing." Ten years later, however, the technology is in every home PC, and the movie suffers a bit from having had its magic rendered mundane.

This is another film that Julien and I watched at Cineplus, and was another occasion when our hilarity contrasted starkly with the generally dark silence of the theater. However, the bottom line is that Wag the Dog is the only film that I have ever watched that made me laugh so hard that I literally fell out of my seat - wait for the moment when Willie Nelson starts the voices soaring for a beautiful parody of the Band Aid/We Are the World/Voices that Care genre of song.

As I said, its a little dated now, but still very very entertaining...

1 comment:

DreamQueen said...

I keep meaning to read the novel House of Sand and Fog because I've heard such good things about the film - have you read it?