Tuesday, June 09, 2009

May Round-Up

Sounds Like Teen Spirit
It's easy to approach Sounds Like Teen Spirit with a cynical mindset, but not so easy to maintain such an attitude as you watch the movie. This documentary follows a group of young contestants as they take part in the 2007 Junior Eurovision competition – an event which is every bit as tacky and cheesy as its adult equivalent – but first-time director Jamie Jay Johnson has no intention of taking a sneering, superior approach to the material. His is an affectionate film, overflowing with goodwill, and its buoyant spirit is infectious, primarily because Johnson has smartly picked subjects who are genuinely likeable and interesting characters. There's Marina, the pretty Bulgarian singer who has been deeply affected by her parents' breakup; Belgian band Trust, who are frequently distracted by thoughts of the opposite sex; Giorgios from Cyprus, the victim of bullies who possesses an unexpectedly powerful voice; and Mariam, who hopes to elevate the profile of Georgia through her performance. The kids cover a wide range of social classes (the cut from Marina's grand house to Mariam's cramped flat is startling), but they are uniformly comfortable and honest in from of Johnson camera, and it could have all gone horribly wrong if he had picked a less endearing entrant (the Ukrainian girl, in particular, is a horror). Johnson's attempt to draw parallels between Eurovision and global conflict is unnecessary, but for the most part his direction is confident and balanced; he lets his subjects carry the drama, and it's almost impossible to avoid getting emotionally entangled in the tense final scenes.

Everlasting Moments (Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick)
Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments is a beautiful film. With its grainy, sepia-toned cinematography and authentic period detail, the film has a transporting effect, immersing us in daily life in turn-of-the-century Sweden. The drama we find there, unfortunately, is less compelling. It's a slightly soapy, melodramatic affair concerning Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), who is trapped in a marriage with an alcoholic, abusive womaniser (Mikael Persbrandt), and who finds a means of self-expression through photography. Her hesitant romance with fellow photographer Sebastien (Jesper Christensen) is played in a touchingly understated fashion, but the film's lack of heat eventually causes it to outstay its welcome. Even when Persbrandt is raging and threatening his terrified wife with a steam iron, the film never quite has the impact it should, because everything in Troell's film unfolds within very safe and conventional parameters. It's easy to see why Everlasting Moments was Sweden's official Oscar entry – it's classy, stately and predictable – although the three central performances are from the top rank.

Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)
On the subject of Swedish cinema, Let the Right One In has been receiving tumultuous praise over the past year or so, being embraced by mainstream audiences as much as films like this ever are. It's easy to see why it has been such a hit: Tomas Alfredson's picture is visually stunning, full of unexpected touches, and it wraps its vampire premise around an affecting teenage romance. The central characters are Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a pale, lonely boy who is at the mercy of the local bullies, and Eli (Lina Leandersson), the vampire who moves in next door, becoming both his friend and protector. Their performances are wonderful, and Alfredson's direction is imaginative, making this the first film since Guy Maddin's Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary to really revitalise the vampire movie. Let the Right One In is full of vivid imagery and standout sequences – from the semi-comic attempts by Eli's protector to find blood on her behalf, to the breathtaking swimming pool sequence – and yet, there's something unsatisfying about the picture as a whole. I just don't think the film hangs together comfortably, and its editing raises too many unanswered questions that detract from its impact, with the ending feeling particularly unfulfilling after what has gone before. It's a striking and original achievement nonetheless, and I would absolutely recommend seeing it before Hollywood remakes it and wipes away its intriguing idiosyncrasies. Let the Right One In might not be a great film, but on a scene-by-scene basis it's as good as anything I've seen this year.

The new British film Helen has been similarly overpraised, but while I can see why people have fallen for Let the Right One In, the critical admiration for this dull debut feature is baffling. Helen is a 17 year-old from a broken home, who steps in when the police stage a reconstruction of her classmate's disappearance. With no family of her own and little sense of her own identity, Helen begins latching onto the missing girl's life, becoming close with her grieving parents, and developing an unlikely relationship with her boyfriend. Directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, Helen goes for atmosphere and texture rather than plot. Like Duane Hopkins' recent Better Things, the film consists of artfully composed shots, with Ole Bratt Birkeland's camera moving at a measured pace around the characters, but these filmmakers lack the keen visual sense displayed by Hopkins, and their film is clumsy and banal in comparison. The young actors in front of the camera, who speak in a distracting range of regional accents (a legacy, one assumes, of the film's funding process), are without exception flat and stilted in their delivery, to the point where it appears they have been directed intentionally to play their parts in that fashion. What purpose that serves, I have no idea, and a similar air of pointlessness hangs over this entire tedious production.

This month's 3D offering is Coraline, the latest animation from Henry Selick, and as you'd expect, it looks fabulous. There's a real thrill to seeing such beautiful stop-motion animation on the big screen, as a refreshing break from the CGI onslaught, and for a while, this adaptation of Neil Gaiman's book casts an intoxicating spell. The marvellous production design is accentuated by the film's third dimension, and Selick's direction is replete with inventive touches as he introduces us to a variety of eccentric supporting characters. There comes a point, however, when you feel the need for some kind of narrative to kick in, and Coraline's just doesn't hold up. As the titular character (voiced by Dakota Fanning) hops between parallel worlds, the film begins to feel a little repetitive, and it becomes obvious that there's not really enough of a story here to support the smart visuals. Selick fails to properly set up the quest Coraline must undertake to defeat the evil 'Other Mother' (Teri Hatcher), and the climax rushes by with unsatisfying haste. There are moments of magic dotted all the way through Coraline, but the film as a whole is disappointingly forgettable. On the question of whether Coraline is too scary for children, the answer is no, but it might well be too dull for them.