Now, where were we? A couple of French films, I think… And in the last week or so there have been more like that, plus a couple of blockbusters. Herewith:
Oh Russell. Or rather, oh Ridley. I thoroughly enjoyed Gladiator, thought it was a terrific film – so I’m not dissing the collaboration here, or even the style (the similarities abound). And Cate Blanchett is a far superior “Maid” Marion than that dreadful Sienna Miller would’ve been. But really – this retelling of the story (“retelling” – really? or just “concocting a new story that really has nothing to do with the Robin Hood legend”?) simply doesn’t offer anything new or exciting in cinematic or narrative terms. The battle scenes (“Battle scenes??” I hear you cry. Yes – this is no feisty band of brothers – there are whole armies) are just like Lord of the Rings‘ and any number of contemporary epics over the last decade. The story is all a bit Kingdom of Heaven. And Russell, fine actor that he usually is, just faxes in his Gladiator performance with a few bits tippexed out, and doesn’t even nail a consistent accent. Come on, Jeffrey Wigand!
It’s not awful. There are solid performances from Douglas Hodge, Oscar Isaac (who could have been so much more irritating, but luckily kept it together) and Mark Strong. Eileen Atkins’ brief moments were typically spot-on. Matthew Macfadyen’s got a bit fat, but he does a reasonable line in “sinister”. Cate does her best with a thin script and little character depth. It’s just not that interesting, memorable or innovative. Frankly I expected more from filmmakers and talent of this calibre.
Iron Man 2
I saw Iron Man in Paris in 2008, by myself, laughing raucously (by myself) at bits the French audience didn’t seem to find funny. Loved it. But having heard mixed reviews about the sequel I went in with low expectations – and it paid off. I always enjoy Robert Downey Jr, and am a loyal fan of Gwyneth Paltrow (her Pepper Potts doesn’t have much going on, but for some reason I find her hairstyles captivating). Mickey Rourke does a very good avenging Russian, no doubt aided by his now unnaturally worked-over facial features. Sam Rockwell looks a bit too Austin Powers but I’d marry him in a heartbeat, so all is forgiven. Scarlett Johansson delivers the only bum note, unnecessarily bland and a 2-dimensional composite of far superior female action heroines – but, no matter.
On the whole the film is just one big, silly, fun night out. It’s all about spectacle, and to be fair there were plenty of major laugh-out-loud moments in the script too. (About a weapon shaped like a pen: “If it were any smarter, it’d write a book. A book that would make ‘Ulysses’ look like it was written in crayon …”) Ah well, I guess it just caught me at the right time.
The original Danish film is claustrophobic and gritty, superbly acted, and potentially a hard act to follow (highly recommended – rent it). It’s a tribute to the three excellent lead performances in the US remake that Brothers still had the emotional impact for me, despite my knowing what happens. Tobey Maguire (where’s he been since Spider Man??) plays a soldier who is kidnapped in Afghanistan, leaving two daughters and a grieving “widow” who all understand him to be dead. Jake Gyllenhaal re-enters the family’s life, fresh from a stint in prison, and develops an attachment to the children and his brother’s wife, played with quiet intensity by Natalie Portman. I found her performance in particular to be deeply affecting, inducing my own tears in simple moments where the camera lingered on her face and we read her emotions conveyed in the subtlest way imaginable. Gyllenhaal is typically engaging, though his ex-con is possibly not as damaged by his life’s experiences as would be realistic. Maguire is excellent – a warm, engaged father before his deployment, and a shell of a man pushed rapidly to breaking point after his brutal incarceration.
There are elements of the story that aren’t explored as deeply as they perhaps should/could be, and parts when you find yourself shouting at the characters “just say it!”. But on the whole this is a terrific movie – powerful and, in a bigger picture sense of the repercussions of war, devastating – highly recommended.
The Secret in their Eyes
This Argentine film won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2010, and despite beating The Prophet and The White Ribbon, it’s a worthy winner, almost (but not quite) up there with The Lives of Others. Ricardo Darin from Nine Queens (what fun that was!) stars as ex-prosecutor Benjamin Esposito, deeply affected by a rape and murder case 20 years prior, who wants to write a book about the case. In doing so, unresolved questions in his mind cause him to reinvestigate the case, and brings him back into contact with his old colleague/boss and unrequited love interest, played by the luminous Soledad Villamil.
The director’s training on US crime show Law & Order is evident, but his ability to construct a narrative that is as much about love, loss and revenge as a pure police procedural, is the film’s strength. He gets believable, engaging performances from all his characters (especially Esposito’s tragi-comic colleague Pablo Sandoval) and manages to inject the film with a sinister undertone that isn’t completely exposed until the final reel.
The Hedgehog (Le herisson)
I’ll admit, I saw the trailer and thought “I’m not seeing that”. Saccharine! Implausible! Narratively predictable! But by some miracle I was otherwise persuaded, and my open-mindedness was rewarded with a charming, beautifully performed piece that left me very moved.
The three central characters are so different from one another and from our usual protaganists (as a collective, at any rate) and each performance is real and believable – which is no mean feat, considering the story. 11-year old Paloma is a very bright, suicidally depressed voyeur of sorts, who films the lives of those around her, narrating a voiceover of insight and sometimes cutting brilliance. Mme Michel is the concierge in her apartment building, a dowdy, charmless 50-something widow of simple habits who is blindsided by the attentions of a new tenant. Mr Kakuro Ozu is a distinguished Japanese gentleman who introduces her to his world of Japanese cooking and with whom she shares a love of Tolstoy and Japanese cinema. The lives of the three are convincingly entangled and it’s a delight to watch their burgeoning relationships. Highly recommended.