Tuesday, January 15, 2008

More One Minute Movie Reviews

Seeing as my Toronto diary scored two solid comments (not counting those by Heather, myself or people trying to pimp their upcoming book--seriously, did he just do a search of every blog to mention Bob Dylan recently?), I thought I'd make short reviews of new releases a regular feature to balance out my more long-winded essays on films that no one's seen except me. What I found is that I was putting all my creativity into writing short reviews at the expense of anything longer, so I decided to pull the plug. This is as far as I got:


In Between Days (So Young Kim, USA, 2006)
This debut feature by So Yong Kim, about a Korean teenager living in Toronto and her idiot boyfriend, has such a firm grasp of the everyday--the sort of small events that most films tend to overlook, without ever channeling them into a streamlined narrative--and is so naturalistically acted (even when speaking Korean, the two leads are plausibly inarticulate) that I'm tempted to call it the anti-Juno. It's indicative of the film's intelligence that when Aimie/Jiseon Kim and Tran/Taegu Andy Kang break into a car to steal the stereo (which isn't the first step towards a life of crime, as it would be in a more conventionally didactic film), Aimie is more interested in the personal letters she finds in the glove compartment than the loot. The story is punctuated by Aimie's letters to her father, suggesting that everything which falls between them--the inbetween days of the title--are things Aimie doesn't think are important enough to mention or that she doesn't want her parents to know about. Filmed almost entirely in claustrophobic close-ups and medium shots, each scene carries the thrill of discovery, of seeing an experience that hasn't been put on film before; there have been a lot of movies about teenage girls (two exemplary recent ones are Hairspray [2007] and Offside [2006]), but never one quite like this. In Between Days is one of the more distinctive debuts of recent memory.


Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, USA, 2007)
After Big Fish (2003) I felt I'd had enough of Tim Burton for one lifetime, so I passed on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride (both 2005), and I might have passed on this as well were it not for Heather wanting to see it; long story short, I'm glad that she did even if its vision is so unrelentingly grim and violent that I found myself admiring the film more than liking it. Adapted from the Stephen Sondheim stage musical (which I haven't seen), its title character/Johnny Depp is a psychotic barber bent on avenging the family taken away from him by a cruel judge/Alan Rickman who holds his daughter/Jayne Wisener prisoner, though I found myself empathizing more with Mrs. Lovett/Helena Bonham Carter, who wants to offer Sweeney a new life which he persistantly rejects. (An early sequence, in which she sings about hers being the worst meat pies in London made me think of Juzo Itami's Tampopo [1985].) Rather than softening the material, Burton really goes all the way with it; the musical numbers lack the euphoria of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) or Hairspray, and the production design by Dante Ferretti shuns colour and warmth--this is one of the coldest films I can recall seeing. With Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, No Country for Old Men (both 2007) and now this film, this has to be the most despairing season for movies since The Maltese Falcon (1941), Murder, My Sweet (1943), Double Indemnity and Laura (both 1944) all opened in Paris on the same week in 1946, inspiring the term "film noir." Sweeney Todd is all songs of experience and no songs of innocence.


Le Scaphandre et le papillon (Julien Schnabel, France, 2007)
I suppose if I only saw the French-language films that opened in Halifax (La Môme, Ensemble, c'est tout [both 2007]), I too would agree with the received wisdom that there haven't been any exciting French movies since the 60's, save for a fluke here and there like Le Fabuleaux destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001). Adapted from an autobiographical book of the same name (which I haven't read) by Jean-Dominique Bauby/Mathieu Amalric, a fashion editor who was totally paralyzed after a stroke except for one eye lid, the film is unusual for having so little action and for Schnabel's highly purposeful visual strategy (the film won the best director prize at Cannes): the first forty minutes are shot almost exclusively from Bauby's point of view, including one remarkable shot where his right eye is sewn shut; when he learns how to communicate using a system of blinks, the film switches over to a more conventional style of coverage, suggesting that we can only participate in the world through language (significantly, in the early scenes Bauby doesn't want to look at his reflection in the mirror). The film is engaging--at least, up to a point--but I wish Schnabel had taken a bigger risk in his choice, or even his handling of the subject matter; in the Chicago Reader, Andrea Gronvall praised the film for fusing avant-garde techniques with an easily accessible narrative, as if Bauby's story were merely a vehicle through which to smuggle these techniques into the multiplexes. The film is so, as it were, "locked in" to Bauby's subjectivity (even after he begins to speak) that when his physical therapist/Marina Hands takes him to church for atonement, the preist/Jean-Pierre Cassel really is the fool Bauby perceives him to be. If you go to the movies for the express purpose of turning your brain off, I suppose Le Scaphandre et le papillon is superior to most mainstream fare, but personally, this just ain't my bag.


Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, the Netherlands, 2006)
Paul Verhoeven's best film since Basic Instinct (1992), and the perfect antidote to such morally unambiguous history lessons as The Lives of Others (2005) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006)--or for that matter, Jean-Pierre Melville's recently unearthed L'Armée des ombres (1969)--this lurid melodrama about the Dutch resistance under German occupation during World War 2 runs almost two-and-a-half hours, and it has enough plot for three films. "Inspired by true events" (whatever that could mean), it tells the story of Rachel Stein/Carice van Houten, a Jewish singer who's assigned by the resistance to seduce a top man in the Gestapo who's meanwhile cut a deal with the underground not to execute captured resistance fighters, which means they can't go after one of the men responsible for the death of Rachel's family because it would mean certain death for thirty or forty of their men being held by the Nazis. And that's not half the story, although Verhoeven and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, who worked together on the screenplay for more than twenty years, do a better job of explaining things than I have (admittedly, a second viewing helped to clarify certain plot points). A good part of the movie's fascination is how the characters slip in and out of static moral categories; the characters exist in an ambiguous universe where anyone could potentially betray them or save their skin. Nowhere is this more evident than the character of Ronnie/Halina Reijn, who goes from Nazi skank to hero literally in the blink of an eye (it's a remarkable performance)--or rather, it's our perception of her that's changed. Similarly, Rachel becomes "Ellis de Vries" and then Rachel Rosenthal, each persona marked by a different hairstyle. That said, the film is almost Spielbergian in not showing Müntze/Sebastian Koch torturing anyone (it's here that the comparison with Ang Lee's Lust, Caution [2007] is most instructive). Incidentally, the last shot reminded me of Munich (2005) in its bitter irony: there is no promise land. Made with an exceptionally high level of craft that equals (if not surpasses) Verhoeven's American films--the camerawork, lighting, sets, costumes and pacing are all flawless--Black Book is a grand entertainment.


The Orphanage (Juan Antonio Bayona, Spain, 2007)
I suppose if I only saw the Spanish-language films that opened in Halifax, I too would agree with the recieved wisdom that Pedro Almodóvar is the only Spanish director worth talking about--and certainly Talk to Her (2002) is nothing to sneeze at, even if I was disappointed by Bad Education (2004) and Volver (2006). There's so little that's fresh about Juan Antonio Bayona's first feature that it feels nothing so much like an audition for a Hollywood contract (Guillermo Del Toro takes an executive producer credit as if in sponsorship of the younger director). The plot is assembled from stock ingredients like weird children with imaginary friends (The Shining [1980]), rational husbands who don't believe in the supernatural (Don't Look Now [1973]), laborious backstories involving the accidental death of a deformed child and the mother's revenge on those she believes responsible (Friday the 13th [1980]), lots of dark cinematography, women in tank tops and all manner of "gotcha!" moments, such as when a seemingly dead woman suddenly grabs the heroine by the arm. Thematically, this story about a childless woman in her late 30's/Belén Rueda who becomes a mother to six or seven orphans is even more regressive than Juno (2007)--"Let's get these women back in the home and raising kids!"--but really, that's the least of this movie's problems. I did like the production design (when was the last time you saw a film with this much wood in it? Needless to say, no opportunity for creaking noises goes unexploited), but apart from that, there's not much else worth talking about.

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