Sunday, January 24, 2010

Reviews - Crazy Heart, In the Loop, Il Divo, Burma VJ, Paris 36, The Secret of Kells, The Milk of Sorrow, The Secret in Their Eyes, Coco Before Channel, A Single Man

Just a few quickies that I never had time to properly review, but I thought I'd better get my thoughts on these films on the record...

Crazy Heart
Scott Cooper's film has been compared to The Wrestler of country music, and those comparisons aren't completely undeserved. The film does have a bit of an "old hat" feeling about it. The story really is predictable and unremarkable, but the point of the movie is to see Jeff Bridges give one of his finest performances as a strung-out has-been country musician. He imbues the many wonderful songs by T-Bone Burnett (including eventual Oscar-winner "The Weary Kind") with a soulful pain that can only be sung.
**1/2 out of ***

In the Loop
This is a crackling political satire about how an offhand remark from an unimportant British minister escalates into a war between the US and the UK. The profane, rapid-fire dialogue is hilarious and perfectly delivered by an A+ cast. Peter Capaldi is particularly memorable as a vicious communications director in a constantly bad temper. You may not always understand what's going on, but you will definitely be able to detect the darkly comic commentary about the current state of miscommunication and madness in federal and international government.
*** out of ****

Il Divo
Taking cues from the likes of Scorsese and Coppola, “Il Divo” tells the dense political story of seven-time Italian prime minister Guilio Adreotti, played with an intentional lack of charisma by Toni Servillo. Andreotti's rather bland depiction actually serves the film well, adding to the mystery of the man and providing an intriguing antithesis to the stylized and brutal violence with which he is implicated. Writer/director Paul Sorrentino is careful never to make any direct accusations, but it does mean that anyone who is not well-versed with the current state of complicated political discord in Italy may be hard pressed to follow along. There is indeed a sprawling and unwieldy network of people that's damn near impossible to keep track of, and the disjointed narrative structure simply adds to the frustration, but the universal point about power and corruption still rings through.
Aesthetically, the film is a bit overcooked, with camera motion, editing, and music that need not have been so fast, but I guess that's what it takes to move along a story as convoluted as this.

Burma VJ
Burma VJ presents the Rangoon protests of September 2007 through the secretly obtained footage of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a small network of undercover video journalists who combat the country's oppressive military regime by illegally recording and broadcasting news outside the censorship of the government. The film is narrated by one DVB member operating safely out of Thailand, and given dramatizations for context. And though the recreated scenes do indeed feel out of place, they do not undermine the startling power of the raw footage acquired on the streets of Rangoon, as Buddhist monks and suppressed citizens pit their will power against the brutality of the police and the army. One extended march montage in particular ranks as one of the best and most inspiring sequences put on film this year.
*** out of ****

Paris 36
This frothy, nostalgia-steeped film may be a bit overdone and self-indulgent at times, but it does an excellent job at conveying time and place; Faubourg, France, in 1936, realized by beautiful production and costume design, and a healthy dose of old school Parisian music, including the film's lovely theme “Loin de Paname”. The many characters and subplots are a bit much for this feather-light examination of the issues concerning French citizens on the cusp of the second World War, but its gentle humour and familiar “let's-put-on-a-show” narrative should be a treat anybody fond of the films of the 1930's, to which this movie often alludes. It probably would have worked better as a full-fledged musical though.
**1/2 out of ****

The Secret of Kells
The Secret of Kells is a unique little production about a young boy who undertakes a journey to help write a book of ultimate knowledge, while the threat of barbarous vikings perpetually looms over the village of Kells where his stubborn uncle insists on building an impenetrable wall.
While the film is not always narratively sound, its artistic approach makes it pretty unforgettable. It is an exercise of style over substance, but such style! A dazzling kaleidoscope of shape and colour, it is a very original and singular work, given a distinct Irish flavour by a terrific musical score. It's a film with a lot of character to it, and its Oscar nomination for Animated Feature is a refreshing choice, and infinitely better than the previously assumed nominee Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.
**1/2 out of ***

The Milk of Sorrow
To the inattentive eye, The Milk of Sorrow may seem merely like a slice-of-life picture set in the slums of Lima, Peru, but deeper meaning of more intense implications lie beneath its gentile exterior. Fausta is a timid and fearful young woman whose mother has recently died. We find out by the integration of an eerily beautiful song, sung by her mother on her death bed, that she was a victim of rape during the years of violence and tumult in Peru from the 70's to the 90's. As the mythology of the film suggests, Fausta has inherited the emotional scars and trauma of her mother by consuming her breast milk as an infant. This magical-realistic premise may not hold much water in the most literal interpretation, but it serves as a haunting metaphor for the passing on of burdens and psychological wounds from one generation to the next. Over the course of this casually paced and subtly acted film, Fausta is forced to overcome the memory of the violence committed against her mother if she is to be truly liberated. Writer/director Claudia Llosa very tactfully chooses to omit any direct or visual reference to the unspoken atrocities. They instead fester in Fausta's mind, constricting and repressing her, exposed only through the subtext of Magaly Solier's performance.
**1/2 out of ****

The Secret in Their Eyes
This mystery/drama from Argentina is a conventional but engaging film that tells (mostly through flashback) of an investigator who is practically obsessed with the man who raped and murdered an innocent woman. His search takes him years, but once he gets the perp, an embittered DA has him released and hired as a hitman for the Peronist government, forcing our hero to flee the city. After 25 years of living in fear for his life, he makes one final trip to the victim's husband for some closure, and uncovers the disturbing truth behind the case.
The film seldom fails to keep your attention, and flirts with greatness, but is ultimately limited by some problems; the dialogue is a bit too on the nose, the musical cues a bit too blatant, and it runs a tad too long. Some moments are painfully cliché (like the melodramatic train station farewell), while others are simply brilliant (like the incredibly elaborate 5-minute tracking shot at a crowded soccer match).
*** out of ****

Coco Before Channel
Yawn. Coco Avant Channel is a painfully pedestrian biopic, so by-the-book that I would rather buy-the-book. Audrey Tautou plays world renowned fashion designer Coco Channel in her early life, her interests in clothing design just starting to bud. Much of the film plays out merely as a showcase for Catherine Leterrier's pretty costumes, and Alexandre Desplat's score, though lovely, does the film no favours by lulling its audience to sleep.
It's clear to see why it received its nod for Costume Design, with its plethora of **

A Single Man
Fashion designer Tom Ford's directorial debut is an impressive one, exploring the heart and mind of a grieving professor who struggles to make it through the day. Colin Firth is outstanding as a George Falconer, mourning the death of his life partner, every facial tick and vocal inflection accentuating the overwhelming sorrow within him. It's a magnificent performance.
Ford's script frames the story smartly and his full of well appointed subtlety, but his rookie status is visible in the film's overcooked stylistic presence, the music often overexposed and the editing spotty. At the very least it is consistently overdone. Ford wanted to put his stamp on this film without compromise, and that's what he did. Good for him.
*** out of ****

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