11 July 2007

FOUR RECENT FILMS

Two of these could likely end up on my year-end Top Ten list, and they couldn't be more different from each other.




THE BRAND UPON THE BRAIN!
This initially seems a tad less accessible than Guy Maddin's previous best work, THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD. The story is as deranged as ever, involving a marooned orphanage, a gender-bending teenage detective/harpist, and a sinisterly-derived fountain of youth nectar, among many other quirks. With intertitles and voice-over narration (by the incomparable Isabella Rossellini) in place of any spoken dialogue, it proceeds at a hallucinatory pace: the images often bleed into one another, the intertitles fly by rapidly and occasionally repeat as if we were watching remnants of long-buried film reels (at times resembling a cubist painting come to life), and the lurid action reaches multiple crescendos.

It's no coincidence Maddin recently wrote about underground auteur Kenneth Anger in Film Comment—here he repeatedly injects his own sensibility into Anger's style, but the effect is neither tribute nor copy but its own excitable, idiosyncratic creation. Simultaneously pushing and pleasing his audience, Maddin reaches a great apex here: BRAND is far more involving and relatively easier to follow than his earlier films but thankfully, it doesn't compromise or dilute what made them so delightfully eccentric. (5/5)

BROKEN ENGLISH
Here's a tale we've heard before: Nora (Parker Posey), a woman in her mid-30's, is in pre-midlife crisis mode. Her administrative hotel job neither challenges nor fulfills her and she has yet to truly fall in love. Substitute a few words and you have the plot of a dozen other art-house chick flicks. So, how does BROKEN ENGLISH stand out from them? First, Posey is well-cast and well-tempered, fully expressing Nora's complexities and neuroses without overplaying them. Second, the situations director/writer Zoe R. Cassavetes places her in seem real and relatable without feeling clich├ęd, from an impulsive, disastrous affair with a narcissistic actor (a perfectly fatuous Justin Theroux) to an impromptu trip to Paris with her best friend (a nicely curt Drea De Matteo). When Nora finally meets a potential romantic partner in Julien (Melvil Poupaud), we watch all the little details accumulate in the subsequent affair and get a vivid sense of character, place, chemistry and conflict. Cassavetes doesn't even come close to attaining the weight and originality of her father John's maverick work, but she doesn't talk down to her audience, either. She's the third Cassavetes sibling to make a film, and by far the most promising one. (4/5)




RATATOUILLE
Brad Bird’s first two animated features (THE IRON GIANT and THE INCREDIBLES) heightened my anticipation for his third, which has an unlikely premise: a rat with an enhanced sense of smell longs to be a great chef in a Parisian restaurant and realizes his goal with the help of a klutzy human friend. Fortunately, RATATOUILLE is a fine, rich dish. The gorgeous, detailed computer animation makes earlier Pixar films seem like embryonic sketches, the cast of voices is pitch perfect without being too celebrity fueled and thus distracting (most recognizable is Peter O’Toole as a deliciously snooty food critic), and a few sequences approach Rube Goldbergian levels of intricacy.

None of that would matter, of course, if it all wasn’t in service of an excellent, unexpectedly affecting narrative. The story not only speaks volumes about how talent and drive go hand in hand to create great art, but also dissects what an audience’s role is in consuming and comprehending it. While entertaining and populist, Bird’s films have always operated at a level of sophistication higher than most of his peers, and this may be his most lithe, ingenuous creation yet: it bursts with creativity and passion and is refreshingly devoid of cloyingness and cynicism. My compliments to the chef. (5/5)

SICKO
To paraphrase an expression one of my colleagues loves to use, I am so over Michael Moore. His earlier movies and TV shows were amusing and unsettling in equal amounts, but he jumped the shark with FAHRENHEIT 911, a film that I liked at the time but now remember as a well-intentioned but clumsy diatribe that's more propaganda than anything resembling artistic merit. Fortunately, SICKO has more of the latter. Pushing for universal health care, Moore makes his most convincing, provocative argument since ROGER AND ME. It helps that he's picked a cause most people can champion and it's to his advantage that he spends less time on camera. Still, I'm having trouble with little things I could overlook before: his condescending voiceovers, his one-sided examples and reasoning, the stunts that don't seem ingenuous as they once did. I appreciate what Moore's trying to do, and the film simmers to a fine boil of outrage and enlightenment; it also hints, more than ever, that the guy is a one-trick pony. He needs to make a different type of film next time out—perhaps one that shows more than it tells. (3/5)

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