Sunday, January 29, 2006

Not Siskel or Ebert or even the new guy, Roper

Twice in the last three weeks, we've had a two-movie weekend. By which I mean, we saw two movies in the theater. It's not unusual for us to watch two at home in the course of a weekend, but I have high standards for movies I'm going to pay $6 to see (gotta love those low Maine prices...). So here's the recap on what we've seen, in chronological order.

Syriana. We saw this the weekend Brokeback Mountain opened in Portland (all of two weeks ago); we intended to see Brokeback, but it was sold out, so we saw Syriana instead. It's a sprawling, complex look at the tentacles of the global oil business and its geopolitical ripple effect. Written and directed by the same guy who wrote Traffic, which I loved. But I did not love this movie. It's got several overlapping plotlines, and while each was interesting, I didn't feel like they added up to a successful movie. I don't need everything tied up neatly at the end (I really liked Broken Flowers, for example, which has an incredibly ambiguous ending) but I do appreciate a coherent story -- and Syriana lacked that.

I will say that Syriana is full of great acting, especially by George Clooney and Jeffrey Wright, but women are almost entirely absent from the movie. There's Matt Damon's wife and Clooney's boss -- and that's it. That's more a factor of the oil business than it is any particular ideology on the filmmakers' part, but I thought it was worth noting. In the end, the movie makes sense as a political statement, but as a film? Not so much.

The next day, Darren went to the theater early to buy tickets for Brokeback Mountain, which we saw with friends in a sold-out show. I have trouble articulating why I loved this movie so much; like the rest of Ang Lee's work, it's beautifully shot and the acting is amazing. I will admit to a huge bias in favor of Jake Gyllenhall to begin with, but I was totally blown away by Heath Ledger's performance as well. Talk about a movie that's as different from Syriana as can be -- it tells a simple, clear story of love, intimacy and family struggles; it's as interested in human emotion as Syriana is distanced from it.

What the two movies have in common, though, is trust in their audience. Neither one spells everything out -- sometimes to the detriment of Syriana. For all the hoopla about Brokeback Mountain's subject matter, this is not a message movie. Sure, you can't help spending a lot of time thinking about the strictures our society continues to place on its gay and lesbian members -- but that's not the point of the movie. Brokeback Mountain is about love against the odds, a story that's as timeless as it is relevant.

Now, on to this weekend. Friday night we saw Capote. I luuurve Philip Seymour Hoffman (though not in quite the same way as I do Jake G.) but did not expect to be as transfixed by this movie as I was. Capote absolutely sucked me in; I didn't look at my watch once, despite the horribly uncomfortable seats at Portland's beloved but threadbare art house. Capote himself is such a compelling, conflicted character, and given my journalism background it was absolutely captivating to watch the way he cozied up to sources, including one of the killers. Capote did what he felt necessary to get this story, but the implication of the film is that the experience cast a long, dark shadow over the rest of his life. I highly recommend this movie.

Last night, we finally saw Match Point, which, as usual, took more than a month after being in wide release to get to Maine. You should know that Darren and I are huge Woody Allen fans; several years ago, we watched all of his movies in the order in which he made them, an exercise I recommend highly if you're anything of a film buff. It's a really fascinating way to watch the development of a director's technique. (We did the same thing with Spike Lee; that project took much less time, but was equally as interesting. And it gave us a good excuse to watch Do the Right Thing for the 93rd time.)

Like most of Allen's fans, we've been disappointed by his recent work. Sweet & Lowdown was the last movie he made that I thought was any good. Though we used to be sure to see each new movie of his in the theater, we haven't even bothered to rent the last few. So when Match Point started getting good reviews, we were very excited.

And I guess that's part of the problem: I really, really wanted to like this movie. But I was bored. B-O-R-E-D. The movie stars Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as a former tennis star who pulled himself up from an impoverished Irish background only to find himself dating the daughter of a wealthy and powerful British family. Scarlett Johansson is an aspiring American actress who's dating the family's son. Complications ensue. But they're just not that complicated. Though the film starts promisingly, it soon loses dramatic tension; that, combined with the fact that I didn't really care what happened to Rhys-Meyers' character, made the movie fizzle out.

We saw this movie with another couple and were evenly split on it; Darren and J liked it, while H and I were unimpressed. At dinner afterwards, Darren and I realized that we essentially agreed about its flaws, but that he liked the movie despite them and I didn't. While it's definitely far better than Small Time Crooks or Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Match Point is missing Allen's spark. I miss the overwritten, overly intellectual dialogue, and the nebbishy, neurotic character Allen usually plays. Is that fair to the filmmaker? I don't know. But in the end, Match Point made me want to come home and watch Crimes and Misdemeanors, which handles many of the same themes much more deftly.

Thus endeth my movie recap.