December 21, 2006

Netflix Naughty and Nice

Three recent Netflix rentals have had wildly varying results.

First, there was The Squid and the Whale, writer/director Noah Baumbach's autobiographical tale of a family breaking apart. This one gets an enthusiastic thumbs up. The extensive use of hand-held cameras added a very personal, almost voyeuristic touch. Jeff Daniels as one of the most selfish fathers in film history continues to prove that he is a highly talented and somewhat underrated actor. He does silence better than almost anyone else. Laura Linney turns in another raw, emotional performance as a wife and mother who is beginning to achieve professional success but who has a childishly unrealistic view about her marriage commitment. Note: it is probably not a good idea to see The Squid and the Whale with family members, for several reasons.

Next up was The Da Vinci Code, Ron Howard's film version of the ubiquitous Dan Brown novel. This one gets a middling thumbs sideways. Some of the quirks of the novel that many found endearing do not translate well to film. First, Tom Hanks is miscast as the academic turned action hero in the tradition of Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan. He is a bit old and puffy to be playing Robert Langdon, a professor in his early 40's who swims every day and has the nickname "the Dolphin." Second, why is it that, in the movies, the hero stumbles upon a giant trove of files, and is able to sort through them in just a couple of minutes to find the Rosetta Stone? In its favor, however, The Da Vinci Code co-stars Audrey Tatou, who is able to occupy a role so fully that not only her demeanor, but also her appearance changes completely from one film to the next. I did not even recognize her until halfway through the movie. And finally, there is Ian McKellan as British expatriate Sir Leigh Teabing. His piercing blue eyes and basso profundo voice are always riveting.

Then there is the downer of the bunch. Rosenstrasse is a critically acclaimed German production that finds a German family gathered in New York City for the father's funeral. Apparently, the mother's childhood as a Holocaust survivor in Berlin is revealed during the film, along with some family secrets. I say "apparently" because I found Rosenstrasse so moribund that I had to remove the dvd after about 20 minutes. The mother is practically catatonic, and the pacing of the film is painfully slow. It is also stagey and claustrophobic, much of it taking place in the mother's apartment. The other jarring aspect of the film is that the German language appears to be dubbed, and, worse yet, the actors appear to be speaking English. Unfortunately, there was no option on the dvd to hear the original English soundtrack that I suspect exists. Maybe Rosenstrasse was written as a play. Maybe it should have stayed a play.

Have a happy holiday!


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