Saturday, January 22, 2005

Ocean's 12

Ocean’s 12
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
2004, rated PG-13
4 stars

Sequels have a long, sad history as some of the worst films ever created. Hardly ever is there a sequel that does justice to its predecessor, or even comes close. For some unknown reason, Hollywood film makers keep thinking that if a movie has done well, then the best course of action to take is to create a horrible successor, often with little or no plot, that relies completely on the success of the first. These cheap knockoffs are painful not only to the audience that gets duped into watching them, but also for the original film, which risks losing its charm in the shadow of the dismal effect of its sequel. However, sometimes a rarity occurs, and a sequel actually does justice to its precursor. Since this happens at about the same frequency as a UFO landing, it makes the film seem all the more remarkable and entertaining. Ocean’s 12—Steven Soderbergh’s sequel to his 2001 hit Ocean’s 11—is one such sequel.

The original cast is back, with all the famous faces and names, along with the excellent performances, and with a few excellent additions. The Ocean’s 11 team of Danny Ocean (George Clooney), his wife Tess (Julia Roberts), organizing master Rusty (Brad Pitt), the engineering geek brothers Virgil (Casey Affleck) and Turk (Scott Caan), “grease man” Yen (Shaobo Qin), smooth dealer Frank (Bernie Mac), explosives expert Basher (Don Cheadle), amateur pickpocket Linus (Matt Damon), old-time conman Saul (Carl Reiner), paranoid computer nerd Livingston (Eddie Jemison), and financial backer Reuben (Elliott Gould) come back together to face a new, huge problem. Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), whom the group stole from in the last film, now wants his money back, and will do anything to get it. Having tracked down each member of the crew, Benedict gives them all exactly 2 weeks to return the cash, much of which they don’t have. As such, the group must now go on a thieving binge to steal back everything they’ve spent. They decide to hit Europe, planning a series of robberies that will provide enough to pay off their debt. Everything is thought out and planned perfectly. What they didn’t plan on, however, was the existence of an amazing rival-thief called “The Night Fox” (Vincent Cassel), who is bent on showing them up at every turn and foiling all their plans. Rusty’s old girlfriend, detective Isabel Lahiri (Catherine Zeta-Jones) also appears, and is determined to track them down and arrest them all.

These characters have lost none of their original charm. Each is as excellently amusing as they were in the first film. Rusty maintains his cool composure and sometimes cryptic speeches, Linus is still as insecure and desperate to please (perhaps sometimes even a little too much so), and Yen—perhaps the most enjoyably intriguing character in the film—still speaks only in Chinese with no subtitles to help out the audience, and fits himself into impossible positions for incredibly extended periods of time.

As in the previous film, Ocean’s 12 spends a lot of time on the specific maneuvers required to pull off each incredible stunt. These explanations, done with creative camera angles and set to fast-paced, rhythmic music, are an excellent way of keeping the audience informed while not losing the film’s momentum. However, while Ocean’s 11 was a sleek, polished, Hollywood-style film, Ocean’s 12 takes on a slightly different look. The film begins with the grainy appearance and washed-out colors more common with independent films. Also, in the beginning, the camera work is shaky, with rough cuts and scene changes. As film progresses and the team regains its former composure, so does the film, and towards the end it relapses to the Hollywood shine of its predecessor. The plot often resembles that of Ocean’s 11 as well, but with a few more twists and turns. So many new pieces have been added, in fact, that the film takes on a labyrinthine quality which may leave some a little dazed and confused.

While confusing at times, the film does clarify itself in the end, sort of. You have to pay pretty close attention to everything that’s going on, and watching it a second time might prove helpful. The film is immensely entertaining, and incredibly good as a sequel. Just as long as they don’t go for lucky 13.

Pi

Pi
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
1998, rated R
5 stars

When people think of black and white, they most likely think back to the days of the playful antics of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. In modern films, black and white footage is typically reserved for dream-like flashback sequences, or odd moments in Quentin Tarantino films. A full-length, modern, black and white film is very rare, and usually regarded as too independent to receive much attention. This is unfortunate, as Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 film Pi is an astonishing piece of artistic and mathematical genius.

Done completely in polarized black and white footage, Pi follows the twisted inner workings of mathematical genius Max Cohen (Sean Gullette). Reclusive, and utterly committed to his daily habits, Max reveals to his audience his quest to find a pattern in the chaotic ups and downs of the stock market. Max also suffers from acute headaches that sometimes result in severe, and frightening, hallucinations. As Max struggles day after day to find a mathematical solution to life’s complicated disorder, he pays regular visits to his ailing teacher and mentor Sol (Mark Margolis). This aged, sage-like mathematician warns Max of the tolls his work may eventually take on his body and psyche. Max, meanwhile, has been receiving pestering calls from the aggressive business shark Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart), who offers him hefty amounts of money and powerful computer components in exchange for the information he believes he can uncover. A chance meeting in a coffee shop also puts Max in contact with Hassidic Jew numerologist Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), who convinces him to take an interest in the search for a mysterious code hidden in the Torah. As Max reaches new breakthroughs in his research, these characters adopt foreboding, semi-threatening attitudes, though since Max is obviously in a state of mental anguish, it is difficult to distinguish between his perceived paranoia and actual occurrences.

While Max’s quest for a mathematical revelation may not seem overwhelmingly fascinating at first, the compelling mystery of the situation, coupled with the continual questions concerning Max’s mental health eventually suck the audience in. The math is complicated, no doubt, but director Aronofsky goes to great lengths to ensure that every step in the convoluted process is made relatively clear to the audience. The continuous examples of mathematical patterns in nature, coupled with the black and white footage and grungy, real-life settings give the film an aesthetically pleasing artistic air. Despite the lack of color—or perhaps due to it—the audience is forced to pay close attention to every detail and every fact presented. The plot is so enthralling, in fact, that as it progresses the lack of color stimulation is completely forgotten as the audience revels in the enigmatic nature of the film.

A mathematical thriller may not seem the most exciting setting for a film, but Aronofsky works wonders with what he has. With a pitifully low budget, help from his friends, and a lot of hot glue, Aronofsky created a film that stands far above many other such independent films. Awarded the Directors Award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, and gathering numerous other awards from a myriad of other festivals, this film is definitely worthy of consideration and high praise.

Even if you aren’t completely sold by the praise for Pi, it is still worth a look. Only 84 minutes in length, it is not a difficult or time-consuming film to sit through. Mathematicians and scientists, as well as complete laymen, can enjoy this film, as it covers all bases. Mystery buffs, thriller fanatics, or simply anyone wishing to further their mathematical education can find enjoyment in this film. So give it a try before making a judgment—after all, not everything is so black and white.

Romeo + Juliet

Romeo + Juliet
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
1996, Rated PG-13
5 stars

The name “Shakespeare” tends to conjure either images of ridiculous costumes and unfathomable language or memories of tedious hours spent in school, struggling through the “thee’s” and “thou’s” of some unnecessarily monotonous play like Julius Caesar. When confronted with a Shakespearian work, many cringe at the antiquated language of the Elizabethan era. It is mainly due to this that many do not enjoy Shakespeare, and in some cases avoid it at all costs. Director Baz Luhrmann, however, in his adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous and adored plays, breaks through this language barrier to bring forth the true essence of this celebrated tragedy. Romeo + Juliet takes place in a modern setting, while still maintaining the original wording of Shakespeare. While other directors have attempted this feat with severely disappointing results—such as the recent remake of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke—Baz Luhrmann has managed to create a masterpiece of art and cinema which effectively renders the language of Shakespeare completely comprehensible. Even though the dialogue is of a different time, the meaning still shines through.

Cinematographically, this movie is beautifully done. Luhrmann uses color and background action to create a wonderful montage that blends the old with the new. The opening sequence is the perfect example of this, where, as in the real play, a prologue is given. Luhrmann handles this by creating a mixture of news footage and flashes of action, while using the original Shakespearean dialogue. While at first it may seem strange to hear Shakespeare but see modern action, this opening assuages all fears, and in the first fifteen seconds the audience realizes that although this is Shakespeare, it can be understood. In this film, Luhrmann has done an excellent job molding the old and the new, not just with the dialogue, but with the settings and characters as well. In the bustling metropolis of Verona, where we lay our scene, huge corporate skyscrapers surround ancient cathedrals. Luhrmann turns the two dueling families, the Montagues and the Capulets, into two corporate rivals, to fit better with the modern times. Even the introduction of characters blends the Shakespearean with the modern American. When Luhrmann introduces the two rival gangs from the different houses, for example, the audience immediately understands their opposing personalities by Luhrmann’s use of costume, music, and action. While the Montague boys are rowdy and playful, an image helped by their upbeat, raucous music, the Capulets are serious and sinister, accompanied by cold, menacing harmonies. This is also shown in the fight scenes between the two gangs, which, besides setting the characters, give excellent action to the film, complemented by a western-shootout-esque score. The Shakespearean sword fights have been replaced by shootouts, using guns with “Sword 9mm,” “Dagger,” and “Long Sword” written down the sides. The allusion to the Elizabethan weapons continues as the characters are rarely seen without their guns at their sides, just as a man of importance in the 17th century would rarely be seen without his sword. Luhrmann goes further to use costumes to set the tones for the different scenes of the films. As in his other works, color plays a major role. In the first half of the film, with happy, upbeat music and bright, cheerful lighting, the brilliant colors give a positive and upbeat feel to the scenes. As the mood of the film darkens, however, so does the music and lighting, and the colors which once seemed so jovial now appear garish, serving as a kind of mockery to the lightheartedness of before.

Luhrmann has also assembled the perfect cast for his film. The skill of these actors is the main key to this movie, because it is up to them to make the prose seem natural—and they do, exceptionally well. The best of them all, surprisingly, is Leonardo DiCaprio as Romeo. DiCaprio fits into this role perfectly, and Shakespeare’s words roll out in a seamless stream, filled with emotion, and completely in line with his character. DiCaprio’s acting in this film is flawless. His young good looks and boyish complexion make the ideal Romeo, and the emotions he’s able to convey through his actions and facial expressions are phenomenal. He handles Romeo’s temperament expertly, from pensive moodiness to giddy joy, utter astonishment to excruciating pain, DiCaprio shows it all and more, and lets the audience feel it as well. He is equally balanced by Claire Danes’ wonderfully innocent Juliet. As with DiCaprio’s Romeo, Danes fits into her role flawlessly. Her flowing soliloquies are delicate and sweet, and provide an excellent contrast for her helpless desperation later on. DiCaprio and Danes make the perfect pair of young lovers, and carry the difficult dialogue so naturally, it’s easy to forget that it’s Shakespeare. While these two flow together superbly, another pair clashes fantastically. John Leguizamo, as Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, and Harold Perrineau, as Romeo’s best friend Mercutio, make magnificent enemies. Their characters conflict as opposites, with Leguizamo making an excellently evil villain and Perrineau as a fun-loving party god. As with DiCaprio, Perrineau is able to capture the subtle moods and facial expressions of his character, and his “Queen Mab” speech is one of the most memorable parts of the film, if perhaps a bit hard to follow. Other more minor characters complete the film, with Dash Mihok as Romeo’s cousin Benvolio, the hilariously self-absorbed Diane Venora as Juliet’s mother Gloria Capulet, and a splendid performance by Pete Postlethwaite as the Father Laurence.

In every respect this movie is a masterpiece. Through artful cinematography, excellent techniques for blending the past and the present, and superb acting, Luhrmann has created a wonderfully deep, moving, and brilliantly Shakespearean film, perfect as an introduction to Shakespeare, or simply for fantastic entertainment. So don’t avoid it just because it’s Shakespeare. After all, what’s in a name?

Saved!

Saved!
Directed by Brian Dannelly
2004, rated PG-13
3 stars

Teen movies are an ever-popular, ever-expanding genre. Relying on the overall difficulty of teenage angst, film makers have dutifully paid homage to this large section of movie-goers. Love stories, dramas, horror flicks, and even Shakespeare have been adapted to a high school setting. Some end up as cheesy chick-flicks, others go for the disgusting humors that make them appealing to 12-year-old boys. Saved!, directed by Brian Dannelly, covers a slightly different version of the pains of teens. In addition to covering all the bases when it comes to the typical teenage storyline, the film also covers some difficult current issues, centering around religion.

Jena Malone plays Mary, a nice Christian girl, who goes to a good Christian school, is part of an elite Christian clique, and has a great Christian boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust). Her life is going along perfectly, and she is absolutely content in her knowledge that she is doing God’s work. However, nothing gold can stay, and her perfect Christian life is suddenly disrupted by a secret of Dean’s that goes against much of their religious dogma. Convinced that she can save his soul, Mary decides the best way to “cure” him is to go against her Christian ideals in the most drastic way. Unfortunately for both of them, this brilliant plan fails, and Dean is shipped off to a Christian clinic to be “saved”—or at least removed from view to preserve the image of perfection in the “Christian” community.

Saved! addresses all aspects of Christian fundamentalism, the good and the bad, but all from a teenage point of view. As Mary goes through her life, attending Christian rock concerts, picketing abortion clinics, and conversing with her group of friends, it is easy to find the faults and guess at how the plot will turn out. As with any teen flick there is the one gorgeous popular girl, so convinced of her superiority that she is bent on destroying anyone who threatens her position at the top. The fact that she is Christian in this film makes her no less evil. Hilary Faye (played ironically by pop star Mandy Moore) spends most of her time praising herself for her good Christian deeds, such as parading her crippled brother Roland (Macaulay Culkin) around so as to demonstrate her generosity. Opposite her is Cassandra (Eva Amurri), whom Hilary Faye and her groupies have dubbed “the Jew,” although gothic is more fitting to Cassandra’s rebellious style. In the middle lies Patrick (Patrick Fugit), the pastor’s son, who has to deal with his own beliefs and how they clash with his father’s, and also with the difficulty of falling in love with Mary. These characters circle around each other as Mary’s perfect world disintegrates. Knowing that her current group of friends would only revile her should they discover her secret—actually they attempt to perform an exorcism on her, convinced that she has been inhabited by the devil—she turns to the unlikely personage of Cassandra, who shows her more Christian charity than any of her previous friends.

Along with the Christian theme there is, of course, the overriding subject of the teenage life, full of confusion, misery, angst, and, occasionally, happiness. Through all the difficulties of their teenage lives, the characters still manage to fall in love with each other. As Hilary Faye desperately attempts to secure the new heartthrob Patrick, more for a trophy than out of true affection, Patrick does everything to capture the attention of Mary, who is convinced that he will despise her and shun her once he finds out the truth. The rise and fall of social circles is also present, as it must be in any film that takes place in high school, with new cronies rising up to fill the space left empty by Mary’s desertion from Hilary Faye’s simpering clique of Barbie-like fans.

The film raises some interesting questions concerning the reevaluation of religion, what happens when reality does not fit in with the perfect ideal, and what truly classifies as Christian behavior. The plotline is rather predictable, however, and the film is not deep enough to be even close to Oscar material. As an interesting and enjoyable movie, however, it certainly passes.

Shark Tale

Shark Tale
Directed by Bibo Bergeron, Vicky Jenson
2004, rated PG
4 stars

Gone are the days of Cinderella and Snow White, simple, two-dimensional characters drawn completely by hand, and simply aspiring to a wondrously better life. It all began with some toys, when Disney/Pixar created the inspired hit Toy Story in 1995. Then the competition began between Pixar and DreamWorks, with Pixar’s A Bug’s Life, and DreamWorks’ Antz in 1998. These toys and little insects started a landslide of computer-generated animation, which hit the mainstream hard in 2001 with DreamWorks’ incredibly humungous sensation, Shrek. Now computer animation is here to stay, moving the children’s feature films industry into the new age of digitalization. The newest addition to this collection comes from DreamWorks Studios, and takes off with the underwater theme begun by Pixar last year with Finding Nemo. Directed by Bibo Bergeron and Vicky Jenson, Shark Tale is just as amusing and entertaining as its predecessors in this animated field.

In Shark Tale, DreamWorks continues with its habit of giving the animated characters the faces of their real-life counterparts. DreamWorks first began this technique in Antz, and uses it brilliantly, highlighting and exaggerating the physical features, much like a caricature cartoonist would, that make the famous faces so recognizable. While the youngest in the audience may not associate the large bushy eyebrows of the blowfish Sykes with the voice and face of Martin Scorsese, the older segment of viewers may, and will be able to appreciate the humor in the association. This connection between characters and cast continues throughout the film, from character to character, as the cast is comprised of excellent and well-known actors. Will Smith takes the lead as the fast-talking, street-smart, dirt-scrubbing Oscar, a small fish with high aspirations. His leading lady, or fish rather, Angie, is played by the always superb Renée Zellweger, although Angelina Jolie, as the shimmering, gold digger Lola, does attempt to steal the limelight. The above-mentioned Sykes (Scorsese) is Oscar’s blowfish boss, with two Rastafarian jellyfish cohorts, voiced by Ziggy Marley and Doug E. Doug. Offsetting this school of smaller fish is Robert De Niro, in a fantastic allusion to The Godfather, as the mob boss shark, Don Lino. Finally, the ever-hilarious Jack Black ties it all together as the contentedly different, but slightly insecure, son of the mob boss, Lenny.

The plot is generic and predictable, and presents the same typical morals, but is rescued by endless stream of puns and gag jokes inserted seamlessly into the story line. Practically every sentence uttered is one kind of joke or another. These gags range from the obvious potty-humor kiddy amusement, to the more “sophisticated” humor appreciated by the older audience. This is the trick of an excellent children’s film—namely that it doesn’t just appeal to the kids, but also to the parents who accompany them. Shark Tale leaves no age group unamused, as the constant flow of jokes covers all areas. This busyness in the script is reflected in the animation as well, and the film moves quickly to capture this rushed sense of the underwater city life. Billboards flash, lights flicker, and multicolorful fish dart continually across the screen. Every stereotype is personified, and no identifiable group is left untouched, right down to the frustrated shop keeper in the understandably deserted sushi bar.

Amid the myriad of color in the kaleidoscope of different fish swimming busily to and fro throughout the film, and the rush of the non-stop gags, there are a few quiet moments in the film during which the audience can catch its breath and either reflect, or prepare itself for the next attack. In these pauses the mushy heart of the plot may be glimpsed, but as they are kept short and sparse, they fortunately leave no time for boredom. So, take your kids, take your parents, grab your friends, or go on your own. This is truly a fun family film, Capice?

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Directed by Kerry Conran
2004, rated PG
4 stars

Computer Generated Images (CGI) are fairly commonplace in movies now. Aliens, scenery, and even stunts are now created completely on computers. Gone are the days when Jackie Chan actually jumped off buildings to fall three stories down onto a tiny balcony across the ally way. Now audiences must content themselves with watching a computer-generated Toby Maguire swing himself around a digital New York City on a pixilated web. Sometimes it’s easy to spot which scenes in movies are digitally imposed, and which are real, and usually if it is this easy to tell, it means that those generated images appear false, and can disrupt the flow of a film. But what if everything you see—the scenery, the props, everything—is computer generated? How does one react to a film where literally everything except for the few main actors has been produced by a computer? Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, directed by newcomer Kerry Conran, is the film to address these pressing issues.

This entire film was created on a computer, based on a six minute clip and a storyline created by Conran. The actors were then filmed against a gigantic blue screen, and given very few props to work with. This in itself might explain why the acting is a little dead at times. There aren’t many characters, but the few that exist are played by recognizable Hollywood names. Gwyneth Paltrow takes the female lead as the investigative journalist Polly Perkins; Jude Law plays beside her as the dashing Joe ‘Sky Captain’ Sullivan; Giovanni Ribisi and Angelina Jolie both carry the minor roles, as a geeky mechanic and daring captain, respectively. Even Sir Laurence Olivier makes an appearance as the maniacal doctor genius who plots the destruction of Earth. While the cast may be dazzlingly star-studded, however, the actors at times seem out of their elements. Paltrow, especially, falters in her imaginary world, and seems to require something a little more concrete than the debonair gaze of Jude Law.

Jumbled acting aside, the actual mechanics and visual effects of the film are fun to watch. It begins with the interesting lighting employed throughout the film, a very film noir effect. At times it seems as if the film should be in black and white—it’s an interesting feat to make color appear colorless. This film noir overtone is rather heavy handed in the first part of the film, and shows in both the acting and the surroundings. Conran then seems to jump from movie to movie, almost resembling “Name That Tune,” except with movie titles. Besides the obvious film noir allusion, Godzilla, Indiana Jones, Wizard of Oz, and even Jurassic Park, to name a few, make appearances in one way or another. Fans of Japanese anime will recognize the nod to Metropolis as well. Even the music seems borrowed, sounding most like a John Williams copy, overly dramatic and ostentatious. Still, it’s fun to watch and identify parts from old favorites, and in one sense Sky Captain is like a compilation of the best parts from the best action movies. Amongst these not-so-subtle hints of other movies, however, also lie not-so-subtle gaps in the fabric of the film itself. While the CGI scenery, for example, is stunning at times, it appears that the climate changes from location to location are too much for the actors to keep up with, as they can appear absolutely freezing in sunny New York City, but warm and toasty in the howling winds of snowy Siberia. Similarly, the evil giant robots, complete with eye-lasers, that attack New York are delightfully constructed, but then one has to wonder at the amazing technology gap that allowed the enemy to develop these ten-story-high fighting machines while the good guys appear to still be stuck using the simple ruler and compass. And as our heroes struggle with these antiquated tools, their base is being attacked by what appear at first to be flying toasters, which proceed to wreak havoc and terrify the daylights out of all the little computer-generated people.

Despite these apparent holes and minor acting flaws, the movie is rather enjoyable as a fun, non-serious action flick. While for some audiences the gaps and faults may be too much to overcome, others may find the way the movie was made interesting enough to hold the film together. Look there, in the sky! Is it a bird? A plane? No! It’s a… flying toaster?

Team America

Team America: World Police
Directed by Trey Parker
2004, Rated R
5 stars

When one thinks of cartoons, Disney usually comes to mind. Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, all the classics. Perhaps one might also think of the Saturday morning kid shows, or even the Cartoon Network channel. These types of shows and movies are mainly geared toward children. Then came The Simpsons, Family Guy, and perhaps the most off color and hilarious of them all: South Park. The creators of South Park proved to the world that cartoons do not only have to be cute, but that they can also be politically incorrect, at times disgusting, and still be hysterically funny. Now the creators of South Park have turned to another form of entertainment. Trey Parker’s new film, Team America: World Police, is done completely with marionettes. That’s right—it’s a two hour long puppet show for adults.

Team America holds nothing back. Nobody goes unnoticed, meaning everybody gets jabbed. Every ethnic group is stereotyped, every profession is picked on, every world leader, every political group, everything distinctly American, everything is hit upon. Most of the jokes are aimed at America, and its stereotypical ignorance and arrogance when it comes to world affairs. Whenever a scene is set in a different country, the information on the screen not only informs the audience of the name of the country, but also its distance from America, satirizing the American notion that we are the center of the universe. The team of ace fighter marionettes that form Team America also have no respect for the cultures or national treasures around them. They are only concerned with the destruction of terrorism, because, of course, the terrorists hate everyone in America, because we are free, and the terrorists hate freedom. Therefore, the terrorists will stop at nothing to kill all Americans, or anyone else who is free, because that is what terrorists do! Team America firmly believes in this ideal, failing to recognize that in their quest to eradicate terrorism, they themselves may really become the terrorists.

Team America doesn’t just make fun of America, however. Nearly every country, or at least every ethnic group, is satirized in one way or another. The voice cast is small, and most of the voices are actually done by Trey Parker. This provides a great opportunity for making fun of languages. The botching of dialects is in fact one of the funnier parts of the film. Middle Eastern languages, when spoken in the film, mainly consist of “Jihad jihad!! Mohammed! Djerkajerka!!” while Spanish is reduced to “no me gusta, no me gusta!” But perhaps the funniest handling of foreign affairs comes with the portrayal of Kim Jong Il, the tyrannical dictator of North Korea. Kim Jong Il is actually a major character in the film, and even gets the only solo musical number. When he talks, he speaks in English, but with the stereotypical Asian language mistake of replacing l’s with r’s. His despotic practices are also embellished and flaunted, as well as his egomaniacal personality. So when Hans Blix of the UN comes to warn him that the United Nations will send a nasty letter if Kim Jong Il will not stop marketing nuclear weapons, Kim Jong addresses him as Hans Brix, and dumps him into a shark tank.

While all these parodies and not-so-subtle jabs are hilarious in themselves, what really makes this movie is the music. The lyrics of each song cover almost as much as the film in humor when regarding American attitude. The songs range from country western to bad 80’s style theme songs, but listen closely to the lyrics—they’ll make you laugh even more than the jerky antics of the mishandled puppets.

Team America covers all the bases. Along with world leaders and national figures also come political activists, like Michael Moore, and well-known Hollywood actors, like Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, and Matt Damon. The marionettes are surprisingly expressive, sometimes even more so than the celebrities they’re meant to portray. Warning, however: if you are easily offended by any of the above mentioned, this is not the film for you. The R rating is well earned with violence, sex, and bad language. The sex scene, although done with anatomically inept puppets, almost earned the film an NC-17 rating. On the other hand, if you have an open mind and a good sense of humor, then this is an excellently hilarious film. No strings attached.

The Incredibles

The Incredibles
Directed by Brad Bird
2004, rated PG
4 stars

Everyone loves superheroes. We love to read about them in comics, and we love to watch them perform spectacular feats on our televisions. Films about superheroes such as the recent Spiderman, and X-Men, (and their sequels) have been enormous hits. Everything about superheroes is fascinating, from their powers to their secret identities. Pixar’s newest computer-animated film, The Incredibles, directed by Brad Bird, concerns itself with not one superhero, but an entire family.

Bob Parr (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) was once Mr. Incredible, saving the world, performing daring deeds, and working for the greater good of mankind, alongside the other famous superheroes of his day. However, after a series of unfortunate law suits, and a sudden turn of public favor, all the supers had to go underground and live their lives as simple, ordinary, everyday people. This has proven especially hard for Bob—he just can’t kick the habit of saving people. As his wife Helen (Holly Hunter), formerly Elastigirl, tries to get him to pay attention to his new life and growing family, Bob struggles with his disappointing job and feelings of futility. Even his best friend Lucius (Samuel L. Jackson), formerly Frozone, encourages him to just accept it and move on with his life. Bob is then thrown a suspicious twist when invited back into action by a mysterious employer. As Bob stumbles into what anyone else would have recognized as a trap, Helen, and their stow-away children, rush to the rescue.

Although the plotline is somewhat predictable, it’s the little things that make this film worthwhile. For example, the superpowers of each superhero are impressive, and perfectly placed. Bob has any man’s wish of incredible strength, while his wife Helen has amazing power to stretch herself into any shape imaginable—a physical representation of the already astounding ability of most moms. Their children have equally stunning talents. Their son Dash (Spencer Fox), in relevance to his name, can run at superhuman speeds, and their daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) disappears at will, and can also create impenetrable force fields—any teenage girl’s dream. Perhaps the best character of all, however, is not even a superhero—at least, not in the typical sense of the word. Edna “E” Mode (voiced by Brad Bird), is a famous designer with a short stature, big personality, and fast mouth. She is overall the most entertaining and commanding character of the film, and thoroughly steals every scene she’s in. Her fast talking, quick witted, demanding dialogue, combined with her hilarious figure, shape her into the epitome of rich famous designers, accustomed to having everything her way.

As with most computer-animated films, one of the best features, besides the characters themselves, is the skillfulness with which the images are created. In The Incredibles, the scenery, and overall scenes, have been constructed with wonderfully entertaining mastery. The volcanic island which Bob gets duped into going to reveals amazing inner workings, unfolding like a paradise theme park. Bob’s workouts as he attempts to get himself back into super shape take place at a railroad junction where he lifts individual railroad cars and pulls entire trains down the tracks in the dramatic orange lighting of late afternoon. The film opens with an interesting sequence of “old” interview footage, showing the superheroes in their prime, discussing their work and plans for the future. This sets the film up nicely, and serves as a good introduction to the super characters and their personalities. Other techniques and stunts throughout the film prove to be entertaining as well, with explosions large and frequent enough for any die-hard action fan, as well as amusing sequences involving everyday life.

The Incredibles sends the predictable morals every Disney movie must, and has a fairly typical storyline. However, the little things mean the most, and while many computer-animated films focus mainly on the glitz and special effects made possible by this style, this film has added some heart. While the plot may be formulaic and rather basic, it has enough thrown in to still make it entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable for any age group or fan base. Perhaps it’s not incredible, but it is definitely super.

The Return

The Return
Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev
2003, Unrated by USA
4 stars
Russian with English subtitles
On video and DVD

A quality film is one that makes the audience think about what they have just seen. It gives clues and hints toward a deeper meaning, leading and coaxing the viewer to reflect and analyze the film to find what’s below the surface. This type of thought process is what makes a good film interesting—standing above the other shallow films in its depth and perception. The Return, a Russian film directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev, fits this description of a quality film. While far from obscure, the simplicity of the acting, setting, and plot thinly disguise the more important psychological significance of the film.

The film itself is completely symmetric. Images and phrases from the beginning are repeated toward the end, sometimes serving as a contrast, and sometimes simply allowing for a recollection of the reasons and manners by which the characters had come to a particular point. The opening scene is actually the ending, and from these two extremes, the film works toward the middle symmetrically. It is broken up by days, and follows through one week, with Wednesday being the line on which the film reflects.

Throughout the film, The Return maintains a complete level of simplicity. While this may have been due to the exceptionally low budget, it gives the film an excellent air of mystery and seclusion as nothing else would have. The actors, while few, are perfect for their parts, fitting together and playing off each other naturally. The story centers around two brothers. The younger, Vanya, played by Ivan Dobronravov, seems moody and secretive, while his older brother, Andrei (Vladimir Garin), is eager to be liked and regarded as a man. The world of these two adolescents is shaken by the sudden, unexpected appearance of their father (Konstantin Lavroneko) whom they only know through a single photograph. While Andrei is eager to gain his father’s love and approval, and accepts his presence unquestioningly, Vanya is doubtful and sullen, and unwilling to acknowledge this man as his father. Since their father’s disappearance twelve years prior, the two boys have had no male influence in their lives. They live with their mother and grandmother, and the only other people they seem to come in contact with are the boys who are Andrei’s friends. Because of this lack of a role model, both boys seem very immature—not in the usual raucous, juvenile sense of the word, for both boys are very serious and quiet, but in that they are irresponsible and emotionally young. As such, they are completely unprepared for the harsh, demanding way in which their father treats them. While taking them on a camping trip out to an island in the middle of nowhere, their father requires them to take responsibility and enter the world of adulthood. While at times overly harsh and violent, their father can also be kind and gentle. Throughout the film, however, the audience questions the real motive for their father returning. He seems completely unattached, and at times almost apathetic to the feelings and emotions of his sons, and appears only concerned with his mysterious and unexplained work which requires him to make frequent enigmatic phone calls and dig up buried boxes whose contents remain unknown. While Andrei tries to push his father’s lack of interest in them aside, Vanya can’t let it go. He questions his father’s motives repeatedly, and at times even questions the possibility of him really being their father. As Vanya, Dobronravov’s excellence as this moody character really shines, and throughout most of the film he takes the center stage. The twist in the end, however, brings Garin, as Andrei, to the foreground, and allows him to lead—and lead he does, quietly, and with a radiating power.

Despite the minimal budget, Zvyagintsev manages to create some very nice effects using camera angles, lighting, and color. Much of the film is very dark and colorless, with many dark blue, grey, and black hues. It is often raining, or threatening to rain. These techniques help set the serious mood, and perhaps also serve as a metaphor for the emotions brewing under the outwardly simple surface. With the camera, Zvyagintsev uses interesting angles and techniques to accentuate the emotions he wants the audience to feel in certain scenes. Top angles make dizzying heights all the more real, panorama shots give a sense of isolation, and even the focus of a conversation between characters can be changed, using a literal change in focus with the camera. Throughout the film, though, everything remains simple and low key. Even the music is sparse and quiet—haunting melodies that add to the melancholy mood.

The one flaw of the film is that it is rather heavy handed when it comes to foreshadowing and imagery. Different typical metaphorical images and phrases with the same connotation are placed heavily throughout the film—trapped animals, locked boxes, sunken objects, and the like—contrasting with the overall simplicity and sparseness present in the rest of the film. Throughout, many questions are presented to the audience. However, don’t expect them to all be answered in the end—they’re not. One of the best things about this film is being able to think it through and figure out what it means on your own. You may want to watch it over and over to sort out all the meanings. Turning it back in to the video store may be hard—you won’t want to return The Return.

The Village

The Village
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
2004, rated PG-13
2 ½ stars

Imagine a society where the leaders control the public using fear, where red is the representative color of terror, where one is safe as long as one does not leave or question the leaders, as danger lurks just beyond the border. Sound familiar? No, this is not a political commentary by Michael Moore. This is The Village, the new film by M. Night Shyamalan, writer and director of the popular suspense films Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. While this newest film continues the level of quality storyline shown in his past work, it unfortunately lacks the general flow and suspense needed to make it a really good film.

Despite the star-studded cast, the acting in The Village is considerably wanting in merit. This is surprising, considering the cast includes such acting greats as Sigourney Weaver, William Hurt, Joaquin Phoenix, and the Academy Award-winning Adrien Brody. Some of these actors do give a great performance, others have moments of brilliance, but some are just downright awful. Phoenix is excellent in the role of Lucius Hunt, a young man who would dare to venture out of the community’s little circle of safety and confront the abominable creatures of the forest, but who is too insecure to speak publicly without a pre-written script to read from. Phoenix carries this role well, his deadpan awkwardness sparking moments of hilarity. Although in the beginning it seems as though he should be the main character, toward the end he appears too seldom to really hold that title. Bryce Dallas Howard, as Lucius’ blind girlfriend Ivy Walker, takes over instead, and gives a decent performance in the process. Unfortunately, her character isn’t developed enough in the beginning to give her the scope and dimension she really needs to take the lead. As a result, the audience is left in doubt as to who the protagonist is, or if one even existed to begin with. The one consistently brilliant actor is Adrien Brody, as the mentally disabled Noah Percy. Brody’s performance is, as always, excellent. He submerges himself into his character so completely that it wasn’t until the credits started rolling that I even realized who it was. Sigourney Weaver, as Lucius’ mother, and William Hurt, as the main town governor Edward Walker, are immediately recognizable, however. Weaver has her moments, but is disappointing overall, though this may be due to the abysmal dialogue. Hurt, however, is just plain terrible. His acting alone may be the scariest part of the movie. While other actors do their best to make up for the obvious script problems, Hurt just flounders uncomfortably from scene to scene, unable to adapt to the wording or language which Shyamalan attempted to employ. This dialogue problem is enormous, as it dams up any flow the film might otherwise have had. Much of the time it just doesn’t seem natural or real, and the audience is left unable to be fully absorbed into the world of the film, as they should be. It’s difficult after all to be truly frightened when the monsters who are supposed to be so scary are referred to as “those we do not speak of,” conjuring distinctly un-frightening images of Harry Potter. Often the dialogue is whispered as well, and whether this is to cover up the general awkwardness of what is being said or to add some unknown effect to the film, it is utterly ineffective.

Although in his previous films Shyamalan used his cinematographic techniques to further the suspense, in this film, the cinematography is rather bland and uninteresting, and at times even choppy or clumsy. The scene changes are jumpy and uncoordinated, and as a result the film lacks cohesive flow, and seems rough and halting. Shots of random objects such as chairs or fields are spliced in haphazardly during the film, and though this may have been a vague attempt at emphasizing the bucolic lifestyle of the characters, the result is one of confusion and boredom. Shyamalan isn’t even consistent in his techniques—at one point he uses slow motion in an apparent attempt to heighten the suspense, but really achieves the opposite, and as a result it seems misplaced and even cheesy. The choice of music, like the cinematography, is unremarkable. Orchestral and symphonic, the music is entirely un-notable.

At times the film seems to be making a subliminal political statement. The use of red to represent the evil monsters of terror, and the town leaders using this fear to control the people seems to hit a little too close to current events to be coincidence. This, however, may be the only frightening thing about this film, aside from the shoddy acting, of course. So if you really enjoy being scared out of your pants, don’t expect much from this film. It takes more than this Village to raise a scream.

The Graduate

The Graduate
Directed by Mike Nichols
1967, rated PG
4 stars

While The Graduate is a familiar name in film lore, not many really seem to know much about it. What people mostly remember is that famous picture of a young Dustin Hoffman looking awkward over a woman’s leg in the foreground. While the film moves slowly at times—often due to the sparse yet annoyingly redundant Paul Simon music—director Mike Nichols has created a wholly entertaining and, occasionally, thought provoking piece.

While this classic includes many fascinating aspects, such as the apparent symbolism, the superb acting, or the fascinating cinematography, perhaps the most intriguing quality is the plot itself. Set in sunny picturesque California, Dustin Hoffman plays Benjamin Braddock, freshly out of college. The question repeated to young Benjamin throughout the film is the typical “so what are you going to do now?” to which Ben constantly replies in his infamous monotone “I do not know.” This lost character, although common in many films, is played flawlessly by the then-young Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman’s wooden, deadpan portrayal brings the character to life in a way that nothing else could, easily and naturally demonstrating Ben’s innocent, awkward unease. Mike Nichols’ excellent choice of casting continues with Anne Bancroft as the seductive, self-assured Mrs. Robinson. Bancroft’s performance cleanly contrasts that of Hoffman, creating a unique tension between the two characters that really makes the film believable. Hoffman’s stuttering dead-pan dialogue accentuates his character’s innocence when placed next to Bancroft’s smooth, sensuous commands. Bancroft and Hoffman work as a team throughout the film, playing off the other’s opposing character, yin and yang; these two carry the film.

Inspired casting and superb writing aside, director Mike Nichols also makes many excellent dramatic decisions that aid in setting the seriously humorous tone and feel for each scene. One doesn’t need a doctorate in English to recognize the water as a symbol of escape and a time of transition throughout the film, and Nichols’ cinematographic choices accentuate the different feelings of the movie. At times when Ben feels pressured and semi-claustrophobic due to his surroundings, the audience gets the same feelings with close, tight camera shots, jumping from one face to the next. Similarly, the seduction scene with Mrs. Robinson is heightened by the sensual shots taken through her legs, over her legs, under her legs, or wherever else her legs may be. Ben’s confusion is shown not only through Hoffman’s stuttering grimaces, but also through erotic flashes of flesh and body; with these flashes, one really senses Ben’s conflicted feelings on whether or not to look at the naked beauty before him. At times the cinematographic sequences may leave the audience dazed and rather confused, as in the rapid time changes where Hoffman flops from frame to frame, simultaneously in his pool at his house and with his married mistress in bed. However, once one realizes what is happening, all becomes clear and the audience can sit back and enjoy the perhaps slightly heavy-handedness of the transitions.

The Graduate is appealing not only as a mirror for conflicted youth. Although it’s possible to analyze the movie in many profound ways, this film can also be enjoyed purely for its comedic value. Comical lines combined with Hoffman’s hilarious acting make for memorable quotes. Who, for example, could ever forget the look on Hoffman’s poor, confused face when he declares “you’re trying to seduce me!” but immediately remembers his insecurity and questions pathetically “…aren’t you?” In some ways the film could be classified as a “romantic comedy.” With Ben falling in love with the daughter of his married mistress, and effectively disrupting her wedding to another man, many who love romance flicks will find this film highly amusing and Hoffman’s performance of Ben irresistibly adorable. Although, beware, don’t expect the stereotypical riding-off-into-the-sunset type ending, as the film ends on a slightly deeper note, giving the audience some room for thought, if they so desire. This movie is not just for hopeless romantics, however, and anyone who enjoys classic comedy will love this film. So, here’s to you Mrs. Robinson.

Titanic

Titanic
Directed by James Cameron
1997, rated PG-13
1 star

Most people have seen the movie Titanic; after all, it did win 14 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress. Pretty surprising, considering the film is probably the biggest block of cheese ever created. Why it isn’t in the Guinness Book of World Records under this category is one of the world’s great mysteries. Over three long hours, shoddy acting and sappy dialogue, coupled with a syrupy, over-dramatic, repetitive soundtrack form the whirlpool of an empty-headed love story; appealing only if you happen to be a 12 year old girl, or fan of bad supermarket harlequin romance novels.

As in most films, the opening of Titanic sets the stage for the movie to come. Disjointed images flash onto the screen, seemingly without purpose. The rest of the film is much like this opening sequence, with romantic sunset shots on the ocean spliced in at random moments among the random pictures of the boat on the water. We all know about Titanic from our school lessons. Yes, the boat is big, yes, it’s on the ocean, yes, the first couple shots were neat and gave the scope and dimensions of the grandiose and size of the ship, but as there are about 50 million of these same shots over and over at random times throughout the film, it gets just a little boring. The cinematography is so disjointed and messy it can barely hold itself together, let alone help develop the atrocious romantic plot, as it is supposed to. The film finishes with the same sort of incoherent image bungling that occurred at the beginning, and actually, all through the film. Well, at least it was consistent. From start to finish, this film is a cinematographic mess.

Yet, while the cinematography was bad, the acting was even worse. This film has too many characters, if “characters” is what you can call them. Numerous, under-developed, one-dimensional, and obnoxious, each is worse than the last. Leonardo DiCaprio is just too much of a pretty boy to play the rough and tumble Jack, and as a result his character is awkward and wooden, not smooth and street-smart as he is supposed to be. This guy is supposed to live by the seat of his pants—he won his ticket onto Titanic in a card game moments before the ship departs—but DiCaprio’s pouting, pensive acting makes Jack too pretty; he fits into the upper class so nicely, it’s almost impossible to believe he’s a street rat. Kate Winslet plays an unbelievably sappy Rose, a spoiled rich girl who wants out of her restrained upper-class life, and therefore falls hopelessly, and unconvincingly, in love with Jack. Had the script not been so horrible, Winslet might have done a good job, but in this case the viewer will find her character completely unrealistic and almost plastic. And how can you not be plastic with lines like “I saw the iceberg, and I see it in your eyes.” The same dialogue problem haunts the character of old Rose, played by Gloria Stuart, who has classically disgusting lines such as “a woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets,” and many will cringe at her book-like narrative while she tells the story of her affair, and makes random sounds which resemble those of a trodden on mouse more than anything else. Kathy Bates plays a sufficiently loud and annoying Molly Brown, a “new money” aristocrat whom the audience is supposed to identify with, but instead just wishes she’d shut up. Billy Zane is a cool smooth fiancé Cal, but his character is so one-dimensional, it’s hard to appreciate his ability as an actor. Finally, Bill Paxton is obnoxious as the deep-sea explorer/ grave robber who opens this whole can of worms. Paxton’s performance is so irksome and false, the audience will cringe whenever his voice is heard, either in this movie or anywhere else.

The bad acting may have been due in part to the absolutely horrible script. The dialogue is stiff and unrealistic. Lines are repeated in an attempt at humor, which fails miserably. When old Rose begins the narrative of her love story, it sounds more as if she were reading cue cards with excerpts from a poorly written, and rather boring, romance novel, and as her narrative continues as a voice-over, the audience is left annoyed, rather than enlightened. This voice-over technique does not even carry through the entire movie; rather, director James Cameron seems to completely forget about it at times, and then suddenly remember it with a guilty jump back to the present. The dialogue just tries too hard to be dramatic, and comes off as cheesy and stupid. The soundtrack doesn’t help at all either. Hearing Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” about 50 times, in various themes, is roughly equivalent to the infamous Chinese water torture. Spliced in with that repulsive song is a large, loud, overly-dramatic orchestral score, which contributes to the movie’s sappy drama. The attempt at drama is so badly over-done, one may be prone to Mystery Science Theater-like comments throughout the three hours of this unbearably long movie. The plot is so thick with romantic muck, and so formulaic in its baseness, it leaves no room for suspense. Everyone already knows the end—hey, guess what, the boat sinks—and almost everyone will be able to guess the outcome of the romantic plot. Nothing is left for the audience to speculate, and suspense is completely killed by the abysmal dialogue, and heavy-handed, cluttered cinematography. Over all, this movie is more like deep-fat fried Twinkies, or caramel coated cotton candy— sickeningly sweet and without substance. So unless the 12 year old girl in you is just screaming to get out, avoid this movie at all costs. Goodbye Jack! Goodbye!

National Treasure

National Treasure
Directed by Jon Turtletaub
2004, rated PG
3 stars

The theme of adventure in film has a long and glorious history. The older classics such as the Indiana Jones series, and Romancing the Stone have always been favorites, and more recently The Mummy and the Tomb Raider series have made their marks at the box office. The theme is always the same—a courageous, dashing history buff must find and protect a hidden treasure of great historic importance before the enemy (who would, of course, use it for some evil cause, typically world domination) does. What separates these films from one another are the variations on this theme: the treasure in question, the malevolence of the villain, and also just how exciting the story can be made. Some fail, and fall into film obscurity, and others succeed and become favored classics. National Treasure, directed by Jon Turtletaub and funded by Disney, most likely will not become a classic. While passably entertaining, the film lacks the excitement it needs to measure up to its predecessors.

Nicolas Cage plays the treasure-hunting Benjamin Franklin Gates, whose entire family has been seeking a treasure hidden by the Founding Fathers of America. This treasure has a long and rather incredible history, beginning with the Knights Templar, and involving the Free Masons’ secret society. The story begins when Ben finally finds the clue for which his family has been searching through successive generations. Suddenly betrayed by a teammate, Ian Howe, played by Sean Bean, who becomes the feared opponent, Ben begins a frantic race to be the first to uncover the treasure. In this mad dash to the finish line, Ben picks up several sidekicks, including the young and lovely National Archive Director Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), and the whiney computer guy, Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), arguably the best character in the entire movie.

When it comes to cinematography, the film has its moments, but overall it is fairly basic. While some scenes which might otherwise have been slow and uninteresting are sped up and decorated with fast, flashy shots, the rest is fairly simple, relying on the plotline and acting to carry the film forward. Unfortunately, this is, at times, where the film fails. While the inserted odd facts concerning American history may be interesting at times, there just isn’t enough to keep the plot flowing. To make up for this lack of animation, every so often there is a sudden climax of action, making the stagnant story line peak abruptly. There are so many of these mini-climaxes that drawing out the plot on a line would probably look something like a heart monitor on the fritz.

The story, however, is not the only aspect of the film that seems to be on the fritz. The acting, as well, is at times a little off. Cage is generally a decent actor, but for some reason in this film he just can’t seem to fit into his role. He drifts awkwardly between a geeky history nerd and an adventurous, fast-paced explorer, never seeming to find a place where he can be comfortable. His antagonist, Ian, also fails in that he’s just not evil enough to be a worthy opponent. After all, Indiana Jones fought against the Nazis, and next to them, Bean looks about as frightening as Mr. Rogers. The actor who really carries the film is Bartha, the perfect comical know-it-all stiff, as Ben’s sidekick Riley. Bartha’s performance is what keeps the film moving, and what keeps the audience laughing.

This film is obviously geared toward a younger audience. Unlike most films in the adventure genre, National Treasure has no swearing, no nudity, very little actual violence, and only one big explosion. The attempt was for a wholesome family adventure film. When regarded as such, the film hit its mark. It would be a great flick for say, a seven to twelve-year-old. Audiences more accustomed to the harsher, fast-paced thrills typically found in adventure films of this sort, however, may find themselves a little bored. Unless you happen to be an American history major.

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair
Directed by: Mira Nair
2004, rated PG-13
4 stars

Well-done adaptations of literature are difficult in general. A director must attempt to combine his or her own interpretation of the work with the audience’s possible interpretation, while at the same time making the film appealing to those who are not familiar with the original text. This problem emerges with everything from Harry Potter to Shakespeare, with varying levels of complexity. Adaptations of Victorian era literature, however, reach an entirely different degree of intricacy. There have been many adaptations of Victorian literature in recent years—Emma, Sense and Sensibility, The Importance of Being Ernest, An Ideal Husband, several different versions of Pride and Prejudice, including the modern interpretation, Bridget Jones’ Diary—and the latest addition to this collection is no less complicated and involved than its predecessors. Vanity Fair, directed by Mira Nair, follows the rise and fall of its socially ambitious characters on so many levels, it’s sometimes hard to tell when a particular character is up or down.

The film quickly develops its characters, categorizing them immediately as either rich or poor, and more specifically within those two classes, contented or unhappy. Reese Witherspoon plays the lead as Becky Sharp, a fitting name for the street-smart, head-strong, aspiring young woman. Sharp is determined throughout the film to rise above her poor station by any means possible, and as a woman, the best and only option open for her to achieve this is marriage. As she begins her almost ruthless pursuit of a wealthy husband the finer points of her character come more clearly into focus. Witherspoon confronts every obstacle presented to her with a sarcastic smirk, fitting perfectly with her quick-witted character. She is accompanied by an excellent cast, including two superb performances by Gabriel Byrne as the odiously wealthy Marques of Steyne, and Romola Garai as Becky’s best friend Amelia. The ability of the actors in this movie is vitally important, since each depends greatly on all the others. There are many major characters, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep them straight, especially on their rollercoaster rides through the different levels of societal classes. The acting is also important for filling the gaps sometimes left in the swift moving plot. Since there is only so much one can cram into a two hour film, some aspects are slightly underdeveloped, and the audience is left to guess at certain motives or sudden changes in decision. The ability of the actors smoothes over these wrinkles and keeps the film flowing.

Vanity Fair opens with an interesting sequence mainly revolving around peacocks and unfolding rose petals. While a bit obvious and heavy handed, this imagery really does accurately represent the film. Nair carries these metaphors throughout the film, clothing her characters in sometimes absurdly colorful costumes to emphasize their strutting, peacock-esque manner. Nair uses color all through the film to convey the meaning of a scene, such as when Becky Sharp, dressed all in black, must confront and infiltrate the closed society of the female elite, all nearly identical in matching white. Nair’s imagery is not subtle, but while this could diminish the effectiveness in another context, the plot of Vanity Fair is so complicated in its twists and undulations that it’s nice to have some aspect of the film be clear and obvious.

The film also provides a nice recreation of old London, and places a nice emphasis, in respects to architecture and cinematography, on the contrast between the very wealthy and the very poor in this time period. So, if you enjoy a plot with many twists and turns, and especially enjoy Victorian adaptations, this film is excellent. Or if not, at least the costumes are pretty.