Thursday, October 27, 2005

Kitchen Stories

2003, Norway/Sweden, directed by Bent Hamer (original title: Salmer Fra Kjøkkenet)

Kitchen Stories might function as an object lesson in how to make the most of unpromising - on paper - beginnings, for it's a little gem, poignant and richly detailed, with wonderfully delicate performances and direction. The film follows participants in a 1950's study run by a Swedish institute keen to explore the kitchen habits of single Norwegian men, with the object of designing the perfectly efficient kitchen. The study takes place in a rural area, and each volunteer agrees to allow an observer to sit in his kitchen, on a comically high chair, following, and logging, the daily routine. Interaction between subject and observer is strictly forbidden. The focus is on Isak, an older farmer, and Folke, his observer, two men who, it quickly becomes apparent, are no strangers to loneliness. Isak subverts the process from the very beginning, cooking in his bedroom, and turning out the light in his kitchen to render observation impossible. Slowly, inevitably, however, a bond begins to develop between the two men: the cup of coffee that breaks the silence is almost heart-breaking, and a rich friendship evolves between two fundamentally decent human beings who have lacked the opportunity to express that decency to others. With so little dialogue in the first half of the film, there's a rich vein of visual humour on display, particularly in Isak's mischief, or the brilliant sequence when the observers, each driving a car towing a little caravan, reach the Norwegian border and are forced to switch to other side of the road, since the two countries weren't coordinated at the time. What remains most sharply in the mind, however, are the two deceptively simple lead performances, restrained yet detailed, and the unhurried direction, that allows a series of vignettes to acquire a bracing power.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

In Her Shoes

2005, US, directed by Curtis Hanson

Curtis Hanson and Ron Howard must have a bet going where they're each attempting to direct a film in every genre possible, but even with that in mind, In Her Shoes seems a surprising choice, on the surface, for the director of fare like LA Confidential or Bad Influence. It's a true chick flick - the title sequence underlines the footwear fetish - with three meaty lead performances, plenty of family drama, and more than a few laughs among the tears. Look a little closer at Hanson's record, though, and it's perhaps not so odd to see him turn in a film like this: he's helped revive more than one actress's career - think Rebecca De Mornay in The Hand That Rocked the Cradle or, especially, Kim Basinger in LA Confidential and 8 Mile - and given us unexpected turns from Meryl Streep (in The River Wild) or Katie Holmes in Wonder Boys. While the drama meanders from time to time - a reflection of the two interwoven stories that keep characters offscreen for long periods - Hanson does a fine job working with the three leads, credibly bringing Cameron Diaz from irresponsible party girl to something resembling an adult, and shepherding Toni Collette through an ugly duckling transformation. Shirley Maclaine is surprisingly restrained - her scene-stealing sidekick gets the best lines - and in the process acquires an appropriately grandmotherly dignity. It's not Hanson's most distinctive work, but it's generally well-crafted stuff, with relatably flawed characters and more than a little charm around its rough edges.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Twilight Samurai

2002, Japan, directed by Yoji Yamada

Yoji Yamada has directed almost seventy films over the past 40 years - the kind of work ethic that puts even Woody Allen to shame - but only a handful of his movies are known outside Japan. Most of his professional career was spent on the 48 movies in the Tora-San series, which followed the picaresque adventures of the eponymous lovable loser, and which weren't big in the export market. In his own autumn years, he's turned to some more substantive material, none more so than this modest little film, set in the waning years of the samurai era. Before seeing the film, I had formed the impression that the main character, Seibei, was a rather elderly gent, so it was something of a surprise to discover that he's a vigorous fellow, more than capable of wielding a sword, though less and less interested in actually doing so. Seibei is a widow, caring, on a meagre stipend, for two young daughters and an increasingly senile mother. Like many other samurai in his clan, he works as a clerk, although he sets himself apart from his colleagues by his refusal to join them in merrymaking, preferring to care for his family. Events conspire to reveal that he retains much of his skill with a weapon, as he defends a young woman's honor, and he's forced back into action at the behest of his clan. The film ultimately is about the difficulties faced by two independent individuals - Seibei and Tomoe, the young woman who becomes a part of his life - in a society governed by a rigorous set of rules and taboos, but the film doesn't overdo the deeper themes, focusing instead on the details of Seibei's life, whether it be the making of insect boxes, fishing, the ceremonial preparation of weapons and dress, or the eating of food: these small touches rapidly draw us into his very codified world. The performances are strong - and more naturalistic than in some of Kurosawa's historical work, for example - with Hiroyuki Sanada, who appeared in the Japanese Ringu movies, especially effective. The film is let down only by its coda, which is overly sentimental even though it strives for something more clear-eyed.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Cop au vin

1985, France, directed by Claude Chabrol (original title: Poulet au vinaigre)

Despite the film's origin, there's something very English about Poulet au vinaigre: it plays like an especially well-wrought English television mystery, so it's no surprise to discover that Inspector Lavardin's adventures later transitioned to the small screen, nor that Chabrol turned to source material like Ruth Rendell's A Judgement in Stone several years later (that novel was filmed, with great force, as La Cérémonie). Like a P.D. James adaptation, the players are given plenty of time to implicate themselves in all kinds of wickedness before Lavardin (Jean Poiret) turns up to unveil the mysteries (indeed, the film is half over before Lavardin makes much of an impression; in other circumstances that might be a shame, but Chabrol has such an acute eye for small-town foibles that you barely notice his absence).

Like any good English mystery, but unlike the average French policier, except those of Chabrol himself, class is front and centre here, with postman Lucas Belvaux and his mother (a thoroughly de-glamorised Stéphane Audran) fighting off a trio of rapacious property developers (though that's but one strand in the film). While no-one emerges entirely unscathed, Chabrol has an unswerving affection for the little man - allowing a certain measure of poetic, if not literal, justice to come his way. Jean Poiret is best known as a comic actor, but Chabrol's casting was a smart move: like Hitchcock with Cary Grant or James Stewart, Chabrol understands how unsettling it is to see an apparently mild-mannered individual suddenly behave forcefully, even violently. It's not one of the director's most acid films, but Chabrol doesn't do frothy, and there's an air of menace at the most unexpected moments.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A Very Long Engagement

2004, France/US, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet (original title: Un Long dimanche de fiançailles)

One wonders if, after the enormous international success of Le fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain, Jean-Pierre Jeunet wanted to make something, well, important, substituting the First World War for his more usual world of bizarre happenings and brilliantly-constructed, occasionally black whimsy. There are occasional flashes of his old self - the vignettes that introduce a series of characters early on recall, quite explicitly, the various apartments in Delicatessen, for example - but something in Jeunet's approach seems ill-suited to what remains at heart pretty sombre material (and which remains much sharper-edged in Sebastien Japrisot's 1991 source novel, which gave an especially strong sense of the vast scale of the human losses of the Great War in France). While Jeunet doesn't gloss over the realities of trench combat in the Great War - indeed, he brings a rare sense of the myriad physical discomforts that were a constant of trench life, as well as of the horrors of maimed and destroyed bodies - the sepia-tinted main storyline occasionally seems to belong to an entirely different film, with a rather more Hollywood take on life (the story follows Mathilde - Audrey Tautou - as she attempts to track down her fiancé, who disappeared in the trenches in 1917 after being condemned to death for cowardice). There are, nonetheless, pleasures to be had from individual episodes, as well as the formidable cast, many of them Jeunet regulars. Ticky Holgado deploys his charmingly southern accent to great effect once again in his penultimate appearance, while Dominique Pinon has an unusually affable part; in smaller roles, Jeunet has fun with the usual panoply of unusual faces. The centre of the film is, of course, Tautou, whose gamine charms aren't as appealing here as in Amélie, but that's in large measure the fault of her director, who seems more interested in technical trickery than coaxing a strong performance from his leading lady. Jeunet is prey to the technician's flaw of forgetting the human core of the story under the many layers of digital wizardry, something that also marred La Cité des enfants perdus. It's a mistake that's less excusable in telling this particular tale.

Sunday, October 09, 2005


Germany/Turkey, 2004, directed by Fatih Akin (original title: Gegen die Wand)

A couple of years ago, Fatih Akin directed a cute little romantic comedy by the name of Im Juli, a creditable variation on the familiar theme of boy meets girl, with a multi-ethnic twist and two appealing lead performances. To say that Gegen die Wand is a little different is rather like saying that milk and kerosene are different: Akin's new film is a ferocious exploration of two messed-up souls, and their place as immigrants/outsiders in today's Germany. The film opens, more or less, in a psychiatric hospital, as Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a troubled young woman, of Turkish origin, tries to convince Cahit (Birol Ünel), a somewhat older Germanized Turkish man, to marry her - the only way she can see to escape the stifling confines of her family. She's not proposing a conventional arrangement, however, since the marriage is to remain a convenient fiction, for her parents' eyes only. While it's no surprise that events don't unfold as smoothly as she imagines, given the complex histories involved, the performances of Ünel and Kekilli are so thoroughly involving that they render the subsequent events both credible and moving. When a tragic accident sends the story in an entirely unexpected direction the shift is wrenching, for despite, or because of, their flaws, the couple is clearly struggling in the right direction, dealing with grief, loss, and displacement as best they can. The latter third of the action shifts to Istanbul: it's striking that both of Akin's films end up here, as if to suggest that only in the mother country can Turks truly confront their problems. It doesn't paint a rosy picture of multi-cultural Germany that even a successful Turkish-German director feels that true happiness is to be found back on the Bosphorus.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

A History of Violence

2005, US, directed by David Cronenberg

It's not often that you come across a movie that has few truly adequate points of comparison. That's perhaps because Cronenberg does such an extraordinary job of marrying two utterly different kinds of film: a viscerally gripping thriller, and a thought-provoking art movie that forces us to confront just what it is we enjoy about those visceral kicks, making us complicit, in a way, in the violence that shatters events onscreen. A History of Violence is also a brilliant riff on the Hollywood vision of smalll-town American life, the kind of dissection that perhaps only a foreigner - even a Canadian - could pull off. The little town where Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) lives is set up as an idyll, peaceful and beautiful, where everyone knows one another. Then men of violence come to town and Tom's method of dealing with them forces at least some people to wonder whether, in fact, they know anything at all about their friend.

Mortensen is perfectly cast, his mask slipping in slow, startling fashion, as the audience, too, attempts to reconcile Tom's salt-of-the-earth present with his dark past; Maria Bello plays his wife with a kind of ferocity that perfectly captures the maelstrom that threatens to engulf her family, while the supporting players are generally on the money, even if William Hurt chews the scenery just a little. Cronenberg's direction is carefully controlled, peeling each layer off the onion quite deliberately. Adapted from a comic book, the film has something of that medium's immediacy: there's no wasted time here, each well-composed shot advancing the action in graphic style; several brief shots evoke comic book art quite explicitly, without proving a distraction. Most of all, A History of Violence is a fully adult movie, which demands reflection, and which refuses to gloss over complex, contradictory emotions.

Thursday, October 06, 2005


1992, New Zealand, directed by Peter Jackson (US title: Dead Alive)

Watching Braindead, I couldn't help but wonder how Peter Jackson ever persuaded people to part with another dollar in order to allow him to continue his career - never mind get from here to pre-production on The Lord of the Rings in five short years. Then again, perhaps they figured it was best to keep him occupied with movie-making than have him on the streets. There's no doubting that Jackson was already developing, and confident in, his filmmaking chops, for there's a breakneck pacing in evidence, as well as a creative, mobile camera that would come in handy both on Heavenly Creatures and, more obviously, in committing Tolkien's saga to celluloid.

Since I'm not a committed gore hound, however, the sometimes laughable special effects, constant showers of blood (and other assorted bodily fluids), and wildly over-the-top performances left me a little cold. The plot, for what it's worth, involves a Sumatran rat, whose bite apparently turns people into zombies, who naturally want to chomp on the neighbors, thereby creating more zombies. The action is set in very prim 1950s New Zealand, where a zombiefied mother is something of a social liability, as Lionel, our hero, quickly finds out, particularly when Mum nibbles on her nurse. There are more than a few similarities with Shaun of the Dead, particularly the matter-of-fact attitude of both heroes in dealing with the outlandish events around them, although the latter film deals with the arrival of zombies in polite society with considerably more wit.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States