+ "Amazing Grace": Michael Apted may have earned his place in the canon with the "Up" series, but his career as a narrative filmmaker is far less irreproachable, encompassing the highs of "Coal Miner’s Daughter" and the lows of "Enough." "Amazing Grace," a biopic about British abolitionist William Wilberforce (played by tasty slice of Welsh rarebit Ioan Gruffudd) (we have no idea what that’s suppose to mean, but so rarely get to bring up rarebit on this blog), seems to be falling somewhere in the middle of the scale. Stephanie Zacharek at Salon writes that "In the first 10 minutes, I feared the picture would be dull and earnest — until, about a half-hour later, I realized it was lively and earnest, and also refreshingly, unapologetically movielike." Though she dislikes the bombast of the score and admits that there’s an awful lot of expository dialogue, she contends that "even when it’s slightly clumsy, the conviction behind it keeps you from laughing at it."
Nathan Rabin at the Onion AV Club is also won over by the film’s passion and sense of humor, finding that Steven Knight‘s screenplay "nicely undercuts the project’s inherent preachiness with dry wit and an engaging depiction of the British parliament as a vicious realm where debate is a treacherous blood sport." At New York, David Edelstein calls "Amazing Grace" "a beautifully chiseled blunt instrument. No, itâ€™s not subtle, but how subtle was slavery?", while Ed Gonzalez at Slant declares that "Amazing Grace is proof that liberal filmmakers can make movies that aren’t desperate manifestations of their political guilt."
Over at the New York Times, Manohla Dargis summarizes the effect of the film as "part BBC-style biography, part Hollywood-like hagiography, and generally pleasing and often moving, even when the story wobbles off the historical rails or becomes bogged down in dopey romance." She goes on to writes that "[i]t would be easier to dismiss ‘Amazing Grace’ for its historical elisions if it werenâ€™t also filled with so many great British actors larking about in knee breeches and powdered wigs; if it werenâ€™t, in other words, an entertainment." Armond White at the NY Press salutes "a courageous sense of social propriety and cultural mission in Amazing Grace, backed-up by Aptedâ€™s tasteful intelligence."
Not entertained is Michael Joshua Rowin at indieWIRE, who finds that in the film "[e]verybody wins, it seems, except those wanting their middlebrow fare to display, at the very least, the semblance of a spine." Ella Taylor at LA Weekly calls the film "[m]orally irreproachable and flat as a pancake," and writes that while Wilberforce certainly deserves heroic treatment, "[w]hat he doesnâ€™t deserve is to be deified, sanctified and so thoroughly bleached of human blemish that hardened highwaymen and exhausted horses quail before his goodness and mercy. And thatâ€™s just in the first 10 minutes."
+ "Gray Matters": "Is it coincidence or a minitrend?" wonders Stephen Holden at the New York Times, addressing not the terrible name/title affliction that this film shares with a certain television drama, but the fact that, like "Puccini For Beginners," which flickered through theaters earlier this month, Sue Kramer‘s
"Gray Matters" is the story of a upscale New York love triangle with
twists both Sapphic and screwball. Kramer’s film does offer slightly
more star power in the form of lead Heather Graham, playing, yes, a character named Gray who falls for her brother’s fiancÃ©e. "If ‘Gray Matters’ follows the standard screwball comedy format, the two halves of its hybrid style â€” part early ’40s romp, part ‘The L Word’ lite â€” donâ€™t mesh. Compared to ‘Gray Matters,’ even a Nora Ephron bonbon has the weight of urban neo-realism," concludes Holden. Ed Gonzalez at Slant calls the film "the most inexplicable comedy about delayed homosexuality every made," but adds that "the film at least understands that the buildup toward losing one’s gay virginity can sometimes feel like a colossal farce." And at the Village Voice, Michelle Orange calls the film "execrable" and sighs that "Heather Graham seems resigned to mugging and shrugging out the remainder of her thirties through a series of undercooked romantic comedies."
+ "The Wayward Cloud": Tsai Ming-liang films don’t often grace US theaters, and "The Wayward Cloud" isn’t getting a theatrical release, it’s just bobbing up at Anthology for a weeklong run two years after its premiere at the 2005 Berlin Film Festival. The critical consensus is that it’s not his best work, though we’d say it’s still a spectacle worth seeing, if you have the opportunity. "Sad to say, but the only thing more unfortunate than a Tsai Ming-liang film that fails to get a theatrical release is one that eventually does and sucks dick," sighs Nathan Lee at the Village Voice, who we are oft-tempted to put on sex metaphor watch ("the film’s belated New York release…comes (all over your face!) as something of a mixed blessing"?). He writes that "The Wayward Cloud’s sexual explicitness goes hand in hand with a shift from nuanced melancholy and stealth monumentalism toward garish, befuddled negativity." Keith Uhlich at Slant is conflicted:
The Wayward Cloud includes some of Tsai’s most risible work (never thought I’d feel so embarrassed for Chiang Kai-shek) alongside some of his best (the highlight: Lu Yi-ching‘s flames-and-spiders musical number, initiated by a gooey cum facial), but in action it all falls apart, and I’m uncertain, even after two viewings, if this is entirely a bad thing.
At the New York Press, Armond White writes that the film "is a self-conscious musical about dislocationâ€”an, at times ingenious, at times, enervating variation on Tsaiâ€™s usual unhappy theme," but concludes that "[h]is anti-musical is, finally, equivalent to joyless sex." And of the infamous ending scene, A.O. Scott at the New York Times declares that "the display is less shocking for its sexual frankness than for its aesthetic crudity."
It feels willed, aggressive and unconvincing â€” clammy rather than cool â€” in a way that suggests artistic frustration rather than discovery. The water shortage may be a metaphor for the directorâ€™s creative desiccation, which his admirers can only hope is temporary.
Tsai’s newest film, "I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone," will be getting a small US theatrical release from Strand this year.