Monday, August 10, 2009

Quick Review Round-Up

Apologies for the paucity of recent reviews on this site. For the past few months I have been distracted by the tiresome, stressful and seemingly never-ending task of buying and moving into my own flat. Thankfully, I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I'll soon be back with full reviews of films such as Inglourious Basterds, Funny People and Mesrine. In the meantime, here are a few brief verdicts on some recent releases.

A fascinating debut from Ursula Meier, Home concerns a family who live in a remote house situated right next to a disused motorway. This setup suits them just fine, and they have even incorporated the long stretch of road into their daily routine, but their lives are disrupted when the motorway is reopened for business, and cars begin streaming past their house at an incessant pace. After establishing a convincing sense of intimacy within the family in the early scenes, Meier then shows us how the family unit begins to crack as the noise and commotion outside their house becomes too much to take, with the film echoing Michael Haneke's The Seventh Continent in the dark final third. Little information is given about the characters, but the film benefits from having Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet, two of the best actors in world cinema, as the parents, and Meier also draws utterly believable performances from the untried young actors who play their children. Home is a deliberately vague and ambiguous affair, which is perhaps both an advantage and a flaw. It allows us to read any number of allegorical or metaphorical meanings into the story, but it also leaves the picture feeling somewhat underdeveloped and aimless. The film is never less than interesting, though, and Meier is a talent to watch.

Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos)
Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona might have been the film that won Penélope Cruz an Oscar, but Pedro Almodóvar remains the director who can inspire her like no other. In Broken Embraces, she delivers a complex, multi-faceted display as Lena, the wife of a billionaire businessman (José Luis Gómez, superb) who dreams of becoming an actress. Much of the film takes place in flashback, as the tale is recounted by Mateo Blanco (Lluís Homar), the now-blind filmmaker who directed Lena in the early 90's and fell in love with her in the process. Broken Embraces is simultaneously a melodrama, a romance and a Hitchcockian thriller, with elements of knockabout comedy surfacing towards the end, and the whole picture ultimately pays tribute to the act of filmmaking itself. On top of this, Almodóvar infuses his narrative with one twist and revelation after another, to the point where they begin to feel rather rote, and his direction often appears oddly detached and clinical. Having said that, there's still plenty to enjoy here for the director's fans. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is gorgeous, the performances are uniformly great, and the director frequently stages individual sequences with breathtaking skill. When judged against his recent work, Broken Embraces may be less-than-great Almodóvar, but when you're on the kind of creative run he has been on over the past few years, less-than-great Almodóvar is still pretty good.

Just Another Love Story (Kærlighed på film)
When Old Bornedal (credited here as simply Bornedal) opens his film with a dead man narrating his own story, it's impossible not to catch the Sunset Boulevard reference, and throughout Just Another Love Story, the director plays with classic film noir tropes in a very self-conscious fashion. Jonas (Anders W. Berthelsen) is an ordinary sap who gets in over his head when he falls for a mystery woman (Rebecka Hemse). Their first encounter comes after a visceral car accident (one of many horrendously over-directed sequences), which leaves Julia blind and paralysed, and after a mix-up at the hospital, Jonas is mistaken by the family as Julia's boyfriend (who she shot dead in the opening scene), and practically forced to stay with them to nurse her back to health. The plot is too ridiculous to take at all seriously, but even as a lurid noir parody the film isn't much fun. The characterisations are too inconsistent, and the nonsensical plot twists Bornedal insists upon puncture the sense of tension that is occasionally developed. I suppose the very fact that you're never quite sure where this crazy road is leading is reason enough to keep watching, but that sense of morbid curiosity is about all this flashily empty film has in its favour. Berthelsen, Hemse and Nikolaj Lie Kaas (as the vengeful, and... er... not dead boyfriend) do what they can with their slight characters, but acting the honours are stolen by Charlotte Fich, who plays Jonas' betrayed wife. The scene they share in a supermarket is one of the few with a direct emotional force, and one of the few that is unscathed by Bornedal's tiresome visual trickery.

35 Shots of Rum (35 rhums)
The latest film from Claire Denis is a quiet, contemplative and ultimately moving affair. It centres on a father and daughter (Alex Descas and the spellbinding Mati Diop), who live together in a Parisian suburb, their lives marked by routine and easy intimacy. Denis' direction is observational and subtle to the point of invisibility; she suggests deep and resonant meaning with the smallest of gestures, and Agnès Godard's flawless camerawork is perfectly attuned to her director's vision, finding magic in the everyday. The film charts the changing course of the relationship at the heart of the picture, as both Lionel and Joséphine find themselves being courted by neighbours: lonely cab driver Gabrielle (Nicole Dogué) for him, and the restless Noé (Grégoire Colin) for her. These relationships are developed slowly until they are finally defined in a single, magnificent restaurant scene towards the end of the picture, where Denis' ability to communicate so much without saying a word is brilliantly showcased. 35 Shots of Rum goes off the rails slightly with a misjudged performance from Ingrid Caven that feels like it has been imported from another film, but it remains another deeply impressive and haunting piece of work from this fine filmmaker.

And now for something completely different. Rumba is the brainchild of Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy – all three of whom are credited as directors – and it stars Abel and Gordon as a pair of married teachers who are passionate about dance. They're a gangly, awkward-looking pair, and although they can be surprisingly graceful when they take to the dance floor, much of Rumba sees them putting their bodies to more comical use. Built upon a series of visual gags and slapstick encounters, Rumba is a cartoonish comedy squarely in the tradition of Tati, Keaton and Chaplin, with dialogue and plot being secondary to elaborate slapstick, which the two leads have a notable gift for. There are a number of very amusing sequences: Abel's self-defeating attempt to extinguish a house fire, Gordon's attempt to stand on one leg in front of her class, and a Tati-esque encounter with an automatic door. It's a shame the filmmakers don't know when to quit, however, and for every inspired sequence, there's one that is repetitive or predictable, and the laborious finale rather undermines the sprightly fun of what has gone before.