Wednesday, January 28, 2009

DVDebuts: "Children," "Ember," "Barcelona" and a good "Deal"



There's something about a good, solid, epic tale told well that can't help but produce an audience-grabbing movie. With his recent endeavor THE CHILDREN OF HUANG SHI, Canadian director Roger Spottiswoode proves he's still got what it takes to make just such a film. This surprisingly over-looked and underseen "true" story about British "adventurer" (according to Wikipedia) George Hogg may be hagiography riddled with questionable events, sentimentality, and not a little Hogg-wash, yet it is put together so professionally, pushing all the right buttons at all the right times, written and acted well enough by its star cast (check out the faces on the poster above: Radha Mitchell, Jonthan Rhys-Meyers, Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh) plus good work from all its non-stars -- especially those "children" -- that it pulls you along from beginning to end without seeming to exert undue effort. And it works beautifully, if typically.

So why did not this highly enjoyable movie find an audience in the U.S., particularly since it was released by Sony Pictures Classics, whose films usually hit their mark--and their audience? Along with the riveting story, we get at least a fair sense of the politics and pressures that were going on in the China of that era: Japan invading and massacring Chinese civilians, with the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek fighting with the Chinese Communists, thus making fruitless any strong resistance to Japan. We also see the horrors and destruction of wartime more clearly than in many films of this type. The loss and unrelenting grief that accompanies war is brought home with particular force. And a couple of the wartime "action" scenes, such as the one shown above, are handled briefly but spectacularly.
The movie is also quite beautiful to view. Scene after scene rolls by featuring compositions and cinematography (by Xiaoding Zhao) that are stunning. By the time of the credits, offering visual/verbal testimony and thanks to Hogg by the now-elderly "children" still living, I think you'll be more than pleased to have taken a chance on this film.

TrustMovies was only toying with the idea of renting CITY OF EMBER when he encountered Glenn Heath Jr's review on Match Cuts, after which he went immediately out to his local video store and brought a copy home for the evening. Glenn's right: This movie has as least as many interesting ideas on its plate as does that overrated Dark Knight, while remaining, to these eyes, a lot more entertaining. (It's short, too: There's no wearing out a welcome here.) The enormous cast, made up of so many great pros from Bill Murray to Martin Landau, also includes good performances from the younger set: Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway. This is yet another case of a mainstream movie which may actually be better than its audience deserves. It failed theatrically, but the DVD release should take up some of that slack.


What's the deal with THE DEAL? Here's another very enjoyable movie with enough "cred" that you'd imagine it would have found at least a limited theatrical release. Could the problem have been its title -- which was also the name of another popular film made for British TV in 2003 but seen on these shores only last year? Maybe. Comedies about moviemaking are often a lot of fun, and this Deal is no exception. In fact it is one of the most enjoyable I've seen in some time, thanks to the witty and inventive script (by its star William H. Macy and co-writer/director Stephen Schacter from Peter Lefcourt's novel) and direction that is smart and to the point.

All concerned seem to know Hollywood moviemaking (and moviemakers) like the back of their hand (which, appropriately, they give them). What's more, they appear to actually appreciate the kind of games that are forever being played, even as they realize the ridiculousness of all this. For some, this "both ways" view will render the satire a tad toothless, but for me it simply made the film more fun. The light, sweet touch that the filmmakers and their cast apply to the entire endeavor makes for sheer pleasure much of the time. That cast includes Macy (this time playing a schlub with real smarts) and Meg Ryan (who is so very good here), both shown above, plus Elliott Gould and LL Cool J (below, with Fiona Glasgott)-- who nearly steals the movie as the black action star suddenly gone "Jewish."



What more can be said about Mr. Allen's VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA than has already been spouted? It's the filmmaker's best in a long while. Though nothing great, it does provide pleasant enough viewing and listening, as four true stars -- and yes, I am including Rebecca Hall (below left), who holds her own against compatriots Javier Bardem (above left), Penelope Cruz (above right) and Scarlet Johansson (below right) -- take us to the netherlands of amor and back. Barcelona looks lovely and the conversations provide (as Woody's usually do) some thoughtful grist for the western world's neurotic love mill.

2 comments:

GHJ - said...

Thanks for the shout out Jim. I'm glad you enjoyed City of Ember as much as I did.

James van Maanen, said...

Sure did -- and it surprised me, too.