El secreto de sus ojos (2009)

27 06 2010

A pretty solid movie that had a chance to be a bit more than the mere suspense/thriller it’s advertised as, but it ends up falling a little bit short. In the end, it’s a nice piece of genre cinema that has frequent introspective and arty touches. There’s plenty of Hitchcock fodder thrown around but it’s done in a manner that is very elegant, and seems more organic and less forced than simplistic plot devices. I guess there should be a lot of credit given to the actors as everyone seems to inhabit their own space and maintain an equal level of importance.

I’m not familiar with Juan Jose Campanella’s work at all (thought if this film is any indication, it would be wise of me to fix that) but I did find it somewhat amusing to see that he had directed multiple episodes of the two Law and Order spinoffs as the earliest sequences of this film recall the “glory years” of the original series. There’s no denying know that we’re seeing something of a simulation of Jerry Orbach and his deadpan, no-nonsense style of observing in several characters. While we never get the same level of back story (understandable since Campanella didn’t have years to flesh out his characters) we still see similar tragic shades.

The most obvious shade of tragedy is that of the film’s central protagonist, Benjamin Esposito. Now retired and living alone, Esposito decides to devote his time to dramatizing a rape and murder investigation that haunted him several years ago. It becomes evident over time though that the investigation’s emotional power over him wasn’t just from the crime itself but the frustration and longings he held for his co-worker, Irene Hastings. In a wonderful touch, Esposito is hopelessly in love yet manages to overlook and ignore any advances made by Irene. As one of the characters says, he’s simply waiting for a miracle.

I mention this little complex between Esposito and Hasting because it is one I can personally relate to and one that isn’t explored enough in films. Usually the “hopeless romantic” reads every potential advance and follows it to no end. However, Esposito fails at this. He’s deeply in love with Irene but that doesn’t mean he’s able to comprehend the significance behind every conversation he has with his crush. In other words, just because one is oblivious doesn’t mean they don’t care.

Eventually and perhaps, inevitably, the story refocuses its gaze to the progression of the actual investigation. I don’t want to ruin anything, but the final thirty minutes or so are a total waste. It made sense as I sat in a theater surrounded by elderly folks who oooh’d and awww’d at every plot point that the film would take far too much time to tie up each and every loose end. Personally though, I’m able to forgive the film for its final indulgence in to the more conventional storyline when there’s plenty of poignant and heartbreaking moments surrounding the “progression.”

Maigret tend un piège (1958)

24 06 2010

A really solid, tightly constructed genre film that’s elevated to some level of importance by the presence of Jean Gabin. He carries a lot of the weight here. Filmmaker Jean Delannoy doesn’t really do anything out-there, but I still don’t think he deserved the bashing he would get from Truffaut. Maybe it’s because it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Melville’s seminal Bob le flambeur but I don’t see an enormous difference between that film and this one. Sure, the former has some more “introspective” elements or whatever (not really) but there’s nothing too different from what Delannoy does to what Hawks did. Sure, there’s no trademark “Delannoy touch” (at least I have yet to see one – still haven’t seen much of his stuff) but for my money, I’ll take any thriller with Jean Gabin over Melville’s apparently more “arty” thrillers.

That said, I guess I can see how this is a bit more straightforward in the sense that it is strictly a plot-driven movie. Jean Gabin is the titular detective and he’s trying to find the man behind a series of murders that have taken place in Paris. It seems a little odd for me to even give a film with something so formulaic and bland a chance, but the strength of the film doesn’t rely on the novelty (if there is any) of the story, rather it’s the greatness of the performances.

Jean Gabin is absolutely amazing, which isn’t much of a surprise. I could write an entire book on why he’s such a great actor (the best?) but it would probably unreadable. He just is Maigret here, and I feel confident saying that as someone who has not even touched any of Georges Simenon’s novels. Annie Girardot is really good too, and was a nice surprise. She always seems to sneak into movies, go unnoticed, but she’s never missed a note in my experience. There’s really not a sour spot in any of the performances, even the the peripheral characters are great – and they add to the “liveliness” of the town. Combine that with some textbook noir elements, and you’ve got a location that is as fleshed out as any I’ve seen in a “genre” film.

Die Innere Sicherheit (2000)

22 06 2010

A really good movie and an important gap in the career of Christian Petzold. I still think he’s a bit away from being in the top-tier of the Berliner Schule filmmakers, but this film (which is probably his best, now that I think about) is more than helpful in explaining the rest of his work. For example, before this, I figured Petzold was just an “arty” filmmaker who was trying to explore his interest in “genre” on a more dramatic level. That element is present here and it achieves  the perfect balance with his more “sophisticated” style. In that case, this is sort of the ideal Petzold film. He throws a family drama in with a Haneke-type thriller and a coming of age story for good measure. It never feels that thought out, though, in fact it really is quite impressive how all this stuff molds together organically.

The whole “fugitive lovers on the run” thing is given an update, and is shown a more complicated aftermath. The love story between left-wing terrorists Clara and Hans, while not without some drama, isn’t really the big deal. The emphasis is instead placed on the maturity of their teenage daughter, Jeanne, played by a perfectly cast Julia Hummer. There’s something relentlessly compelling about seeing the pragmatism of her parents (“just ignore boys” – don’t be your age) clashing with her teenage desires. She’s not a sex-hungry brat or anything else that one would expect from a teenage girl who has been restricted to a world without friendship or even love. She understands why she should be quiet, cold, and distant but she tries (albeit in a subtle way) to rebel against the calculated monitoring of her criminal parents.

There’s no one really to fault here. We don’t even get hints at Clara and Hans’ backstory so the audience never has the opportunity to judge their lifestyle on their past. Whether their acts were justifiable or not isn’t the problem. The problem is they are in a situation in which they must always be on their toes and because of this, they are stunting their daughter’s personal growth. Of course, because this is a story about fugitives there’s plenty of “suspenseful” stuff but Petzold manages to elegantly blend such elements into the fine print of a story about familial relations. I suppose this has always been his intention (putting “dramatic events” into a film that suits the style of something more low-key) but he’s never been nearly as successful as he is here.

35 rhums (2008)

20 06 2010

It’s probably not the smartest idea to start off a review by stating that I feel almost inadequate reflecting on a movie, but that’s pretty much the case here. I love Claire Denis, of course and I love this film’s chief influence, Yasujiro Ozu, but in describing this masterpiece I feel like I’m going through the motions. Not because I’ve become a less articulate writer (which is possible, I suppose) but because I’m just reciting my ideal vision for cinema. Words like gentle and low-key are inevitable and are likely to be overused. I’m going to namedrop Ozu probably more than once and I’m going to feel cheap doing so. While Ozu’s trademark is all over a story like this, the mastery is all Denis’ work. She’s at long last created a movie that manages to keep her more “dramatic” tendencies in check (Trouble Every Day this is not) but still avoid being too light or low-key as she was in Friday Night.

Let’s get the simple things out of the way: the movie looks, sounds,  and feels great. This isn’t much of a surprise, it’s expected of Denis. Even though she’s tackling something less sexual here (compared to Trouble Every Day) she still maintains, and perhaps elevates that level of cinematic sensuality. The characters are photographed in a distance from time to time, but everyone has at least one texture-filled close-up that has contains the visual weight of a sunset, or an ocean — perhaps this comparison is fitting since Denis and cinematographer, Agnes Godard treat us to a beautiful pillow-shot of a setting sun by an ocean towards the end.

There’s plenty of technical accomplishments to go around here, but as I already mentioned, it’s nothing out of the norm for Denis. What is out of the norm is the tightness of both her story (as small as it may be) and the relationships explored within the story’s central family. There’s plenty of scenes in which the “mundane” acts of daily life are photographed (obligatory Ozu comparison goes here) but they build up into an understanding of the characters and their habits. There’s not much talking, instead the heightened sound design, along with frequent Denis collaborators, The Tindersticks, make up a majority of the film’s sound. Hanging up jackets and putting one’s clothes in the washing machine are indeed unremarkable, but Denis’ passion for her characters is so obvious that these little events seem completely necessary.

Perhaps this all sounds like “art film” fodder and I guess it is, but even with overused analytical jargon, there’s still a very quiet, low-key (if you will) drama that warm and calm, yet shows the signs of your conventional plot points. There’s arguing after all, but like in real life, it’s simplistic and inconsequential. The characters simply move on from their disagreements, and we quickly return to their lives rather than being side-tracked in something as overbearing as “drama.” That last sentence sounds a little smug, it is, but after watching something that is so intimate and devoid of sensationalism as this, it’s hard to not scoff at the concept of a simple story.

This isn’t to get off-topic and trash a random movie, but following my viewing, I watched a few minutes of There Will Be Blood (an edited for TV version) and was reminded how that film’s boring “rise and fall” structure and stupid morality tale was not the exception but the norm. There’s simply too many movies even “art” ones that rely on something that ultimately does nothing more than distract us. There are few distractions in Denis’ film, instead we’re treated to constant observation. It’s like taking a graduate course in “people-watching” and never have I been so enthralled by events such as the ones that the characters here come across. Not since Ozu, I suppose. This isn’t close to being a carbon-copy, technical or otherwise. But it is the closest we’re going to get to the modern embodiment of his work. For that, I cannot thank Denis enough, this is a huge step for her and film-making in general.

Wendy and Lucy (2008)

19 06 2010

I remember when this was first getting a lot of attention about two years ago – it seemed destined to become a personal favorite at the time. Things change, though and if this blog’s activity is any indication, I’ve sort of been thrown “out of a loop” with movies ever since school started last August. Now, this sort of minimalism, while still very enjoyable to me, is not something I’m nearly as passionate about as before. A slow-moving movie about a girl and her dog should be the best thing ever (I’m a dog person, for the record) but this sort of comes up a little short. It’s really good and surprisingly tense to watch, but like Old Joy, it’s a little too uneventful for it’s own good. Maybe that’s a little unfair to say since the ending is really heartbreaking.

A lot of the film’s success is built around Michelle Williams. It’s been awhile since I’ve read the reviews for this, but I can recall being sort of upset by the constant influx of critics deducing that her introverted performance is somehow the result of her husband’s passing. It’s an easy connection to make and Williams deserves all the credit in the world for being able to dive into a role following such a tragedy. Still, it feels sort of cheap to downplay her role as something that just came out of real life, though at the same time, it makes complete sense.

If it isn’t obvious already, the movie has little, if any emphasis on plot. So I guess one could criticize it for dramatizing a matter like losing your dog, but that’s just a surface thing and as someone who likes dog, it’s not a matter to be taken lightly. There’s a tense feeling that fills every frame and even though Williams’ initial crying seems like a exaggerated response, it is also one that feels completely warranted. She hasn’t just lost her dog, she’s completely clueless as to who she’s going to get away from the tiny town she’s dug herself into and she’s lost her dog. That seems trivial to some (cat people, probably!) but the frustration, confusion, and panic that sets in during such an event is embodied perfectly in this movie. Even when it’s not about losing your dog, it manages to capture the feeling of one losing their dog. It’s a grey area, I’m sure, but the movie nails it.

On the other hand, the movie does suffer from being too uneventful at times, not because it’s too slow (no such thing?) but because it tries to present itself with more superficial “substance” than is really there. Basically that just means the film seems kind of aimless, bouncing around from one sequence to another. Some things are funny, but it seems kind of forced, and yet, I can’t help but feel that a little more humor would have done some good. Still, a very nice little movie. Short, but tragic in it’s own downplayed way.