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6/10
Great characters and performances, but slightly lacking in plot.
6 June 2009
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is a film that concerns itself with the people in it, rather than a narrative. Each character is unique and well developed, but more importantly, feels real and easy to care for. There are no cardboard cutouts or roles simply convenient to the plot. Their actions are delightfully unexpected, yet fully consistent with who they are. Even the minor roles feel like they've had 2 hours worth of backstory thought out for them.

The backstory we get to see is that of Pippa Lee (Penn). She has recently moved into a suburban neighbourhood with her husband Herb (Arkin), a publisher who is at least a few decades her senior. Herb has just retired after having his third heart attack, and intends his new home to be his final resting place. The couple have two grown children and some old friends who are witnesses to what appears to be a facade of marital bliss.

The story of how Pippa ended up in this arrangement, starting with her early childhood, is told concurrently with the main narrative. We learn of Pippa's pill-popping mother (Bello), her aunt's gay lover (Moore), and how she met Herb. Meanwhile, the suppressed malaise in the present time begins to make itself known through a number of events, starting with the overnight disappearance of half of a chocolate cake and the appearance of a sock in the refrigerator.

What is truly remarkable about this film are the performances. Robin Wright Penn gives a stunning portrayal of a woman who seems to say more with a smile than with her words. It might be early in the year, but I would not be surprised to see an Oscar nod come voting time. She is a pleasure to watch, and really breathes air into what could've been a lifeless character.

Alan Arkin is great as usual, and the blunt dialogue of his character suits him well. When Pippa's character tells us she longs to listen to him speak, we are in full agreement. Winona Ryder and Julianne Moore also make their minor characters stand out with quirky delightfulness. Even Keanu Reeves is adequate in his role.

One thing this film seems to lack, however, is a strong narrative. At times, it feels like a loosely bound collection of anecdotes from Pippa's life. While each of these anecdotes have their own appeal and quite a few laughs, they don't quite manage to come together into a compelling story, without which the film is just another forgettable family drama, albeit with really interesting people.
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8/10
What did you think was going to happen?
9 June 2007
In this unique documentary, an Iraqi teenager named Muthana is flown from Baghdad to Prague to participate in the filming of "Everything is Illuminated", a film directed by Liev Schreiber. Muthana had been showcased on MTV as an aspiring filmmaker, and Schreiber saw an opportunity to help him out by allowing him to participate in the film-making process, hoping that Muthana would pick up the skills that would help him realise his ambition. Documentary filmmaker Nina Davenport was there to film his experience, probably hoping to capture an inspiring story of the dreams of a disadvantaged youth coming to life. What in fact happened in front of the cameras was a fascinating tale of shattered expectations, disillusionment, cultural divide, pride, denial, bureaucracy and incredible generosity that can only be described as "real life". One of the subjects of the film sums it up best in saying "what the f**k did you think was going to happen?".

As you may have guessed, Muthana didn't fit the producers' idealised image of a boy with a dream and the perseverance and ambition to achieve it when given the chance. It's not that he was, for lack of a better word, bad; he wasn't violent, unsociable, or hateful; he was just an average somewhat apathetic teenager, with the typical misconceptions about how the world works. However, he was facing the inordinate dilemma of whether or not he should return to Baghdad. His father was shown on video categorically telling him not to return, as he was given the chance to start a better life. However, staying in the Czech Republic was not a viable option either, as renewing his visa was becoming increasingly problematic, and he didn't speak the local language. Davenport followed Muthana with her camera long after shooting wrapped on "Everything is Illuminated", chronicling his work as a production assistant for "Doom", which was also filmed in Prague, during which Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson becomes an integral part of the documentary. She continues filming him through his attempts to emigrate to the US and the UK, becoming increasingly less of an observer, and more of a subject of the documentary herself.

I won't reveal any more of Muthana's fascinating story, which remains unsettlingly real despite growing increasingly farcical throughout the film. Many moments are quite comical, with the audience oftentimes laughing at the characters, rather than with them. At times it even borders on being exploitative, but it's difficult to call it that given the generosity of Davenport toward Muthana.

The film provokes a number of questions from the audience, especially regarding Muthana. Was he too proud? Plain lazy? Not as passionate about film-making as people thought? Or was the cultural barrier just too big? Did they just pick the wrong kid? Are those of us in developed countries too presumptuous, ignorant, or disillusioned about the youth in third-world countries? Are they any different from the youth in developed countries, all negative aspects included? Furthermore, the war in Iraq plays a crucial role, with news broadcasts on the war along with footage filmed by Muthana's friends in Baghdad interspersed throughout the film. While it may seem that Davenport was trying to make a statement on the war, the footage is quite pertinent to Muthana's story, and serves primarily as a commentary on how the war is perceived by the different characters. Some of the comments on the war made by Muthana and other Iraqis affected by it are particularly fascinating.

Overall I was very impressed by the film, and I was lucky enough to see it during the 2007 Sydney Film Festival. Though as a disclaimer, I must say that I found it much more easy to relate to than most people would, having grown up as a third-culture kid, living in Prague for over 7 years when I was a teenager, and experiencing first-hand the difficulties of the immigration process in numerous countries. But on the other hand, I think anyone will find a lot they can relate to in this wonderful documentary.
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The Departed (2006)
9/10
Almost flawless
24 October 2006
The Departed is truly a film that could be called flawless. The story is engaging, the character development is superb, the acting is Academy Award worthy, and production-wise, the film is polished to a mirror shine. There is only one thing I can find to hold against it: there is nothing new or original in the film. You'll find things you've seen in other movies brought to perfection in this one, but the only aspect in which it could be called groundbreaking is the amount of blood droplets you'll see suspended in air.

The story is a complex tale of betrayal in the crime and law enforcement scene of modern-day Boston. It is told very effectively, never losing the viewer in all of its numerous plot turns and revelations. In true Scorcese style, it is also bluntly violent, but every death on screen is strongly tied to a particular plot aspect or intended audience reaction, and never seems gratuitous. Even the romance subplot does not seem forced, as is the case with many Hollywood productions of this type, and is integral to the picture as a whole. As with many action movies, there is plenty of quality comic relief in the form of witty remarks, and even those remarks never seem forced.

Not surprisingly, given the extensively star-studded cast, the acting is top-notch, perhaps at least in part due to material the actors had to work with. What was surprising though, was that you'll never find a particular actor stealing the scene. Scorcese has managed to bring out the best in every person on screen, and that best was being true to their character, making the audience forget that these people are actors despite their recognisability.

As I mentioned, however, there is little about the film that will leave a lasting impression on the viewer. It is a great ride while you're in the theatre, but upon leaving, you'll find very few details that are truly memorable, or plot points that warrant further pondering. You'll know you just saw a great movie, but it just failed to extend beyond that screen. Perhaps the only exception to this is the visual feel of the movie. The sepia-like tones that help emphasise just the right aspects of the movie's action are what really make the film feel unique, and are a prime example of cinematography being used to enhance the story, rather than detract from it. One can only wish that more movies were as flawlessly executed as this one.
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