Monday, December 19, 2005

Boutique-y Stuff: Keane, Touch the Sound, Jesus Is Magic, The Constant Gardener, Pride & Prejudice

You know the holidays are approaching when what's playing at the boutique places and what's playing at the multiplex start to run together. I get Pride & Prejudice playing at the mall - folks know Keira Knightley's name and like her being English and spunky - but why does Landmark Kendall Square pick up The Ice Harvest? I suppose noir-ish stuff doesn't play so well in mainstream theaters, but, still, that's not really a terribly artsy movie (and promoting it as the new film by the maker of Caddyshack and Groundhog Day doesn't do it many favors, as it's not really a comedy and doesn't have Bill Murray). In good news: The Brattle has evidently raised enough money to extend its schedule just a little bit into the new year, and the first week of showings there in 2006 are Muppet movies. I'll feel better when I see a schedule for January and February, and much better when I see one for March/April, but I'm taking what I can get. Keane * * * ½ (out of four) Seen 22 November 2005 at The Brattle Theater (Recent Raves) William Keane has problems. At first we think, well, sure, of course - his seven-year-old daughter is missing, which is enough to set anybody on edge. But his daughter's been missing for months, and as he searches the bus station where she vanished, he seems to lose track of things. Sometimes he seems to be talking about the disappearance like it happened months ago, other times like it just happens. He impulsively jumps on a bus out of town when he thinks that that is the key to finding her, and creates a disturbance to get off when his thinking shifts. That's our first look at Keane's title character, and he never gets less disturbing. We soon learn that he's receiving disability checks and spending chunks of them on drugs and booze. He seems to be pulling himself together, and then Lynn and Kira Bedick enter his life. The question is, will this mother and her seven-year-old girl stabilize William, or send him off the deep end? Keane is played by Damian Lewis, who gives a frighteningly naturalistic performance. There's no excess theatricality to his technique, despite the fact that he's playing a character who may be completely off his nut. He perfectly replicates the guy a couple seats away on the bus, chattering to himself, not immediately threatening, but not someone you want to get close to. Even in his more friendly, lucid moments, Lewis makes Keane a man on edge; you can practically hear him ticking. The question, of course, is whether that ticking is counting down to an explosion, a collapse, or something else. Amy Ryan is great as Lynn Bendik, fragile and angry in her own way. She's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and in some ways doesn't seem to be holding it together even as well as William. It's a very real performance, cringe-worthy at times, but nothing ever rings false. Just as good is young Abigail Breslin, perfectly guileless as Kira. There's nothing over-precious about her. Which, from what I gather, is sort of writer/director Lodge Kerrigan's stock in trade. This is his third film, and like his first (Clean, Shaven), it deals with disturbed and desperate people without romanticizing or flinching. It makes for an uncomfortable watch, but also a spectacle that it's difficult to look away from. Things can go terribly wrong, especially once we start to think that William is starting to get his crap together, even though his growing calmness always seems to come hand in hand with questions about his grip on reality. Unnerving to watch, but very satisfying. Likely-dead EFC link Touch the Sound * * * * (out of four) Seen 23 November 2005 at The Brattle Theater (Recent Raves) The promo copy sums this movie up: Evelyn Glennie is one of the world's most talented and renowned percussionists, despite the fact that she is profoundly deaf. It's a natural, immediate hook that would make for an immensely frustrating movie if Glennie was a less charismatic screen presence. Fortunately, she holds up her end of the movie while director Thomas Riedelsheimer documents her with both great appreciation and his own artist's touch. Ostensibly, this is meant to be a document of Evelyn Glennie and Fred Frith recording a new, totally improvised album in a German building set for demolition. That's only a small part of what we see, though - Ms. Glennie spends time performing on the streets of New York, teaching drums to a deaf teenager in a Glasgow school, giving a concert in Fuji City, Japan, and visiting with her brother at the family farm back in Scotland. You can tell by the changing hair colors that the movie was filmed over a considerable amount of time, and then pieced together in a non-linear manner. Well, not quite non-linear; the scenes of Fred and Evelyn in their "studio" start with their arrival and seem to continue more or less in order. But since this is a documentary about the here and now, rather than the progression of Evelyn's life or even the evolution of her work, Riedelsheimer mixes things up, not giving us any hints about the order in which these threads occur. He's not trying to tell us a story, but trying to give us a snapshot, so the question of where Evelyn is at point A and point B or how her life changed in between is irrelevant. So, he finds which moments work when placed adjacent to each other and stitches them together that way, even if it means jumping halfway around the globe and back again. He is extremely good at shooting good-looking footage, too. Riedelsheimer serves as both his own cinematographer and editor, and what's really striking is how well he integrates chaotic and decidedly un-photogenic environments into an absolutely gorgeous film. It helps that this is probably not the sort of documentary whose storyline and focus evolves during filming and editing; Reidelsheimer probably knew from the beginning what sort of movie he would wind up making. It lets him frame shots off-center or with a distant focal point to create striking images, or poke around to find them. This is no small achievement; it takes a concerted effort to find beauty in a fish market, a run-down farm, and a hollowed-out industrial building. A great deal of this comes from Evelyn Glennie's enthusiasm for her art. The only moments during the movie where she does not appear outright enthusiastic are the interview segments, where she becomes a mere talking head trying to describe indescribable things - how turning off her hearing aid allows her to "hear" better with her entire body, for instance, or briefly dropping into the sort of artist-speak that can make a general audience feel stupid. But when we get to watch her, we get it. We see her demonstrating the method of listening with one's skin and hands to a deaf student. We see her open a box full of different objects to try on a type of Japanese drum she apparently wasn't familiar with. But mostly, we see her play, in both senses. She's a performer, and her music is both lively and skilled; she applies great technique to the most basic way we have of making music. But it's her way of playing in the other way that unleashes the most delight. Every chaotic place she goes has new things just laying around, items of different shapes and sizes and materials, that will make new and different sounds when you hit them with a stick, or bow, or brush. Parts of the building in which she and Fred Frith are recording have strong echoes, but where other musicians may shudder at the idea of introducing that kind of randomness and distortion into their work, these two find that echo to be just one more exciting toy to play with in order to make music. Watching this movie didn't really make me truly understand how Evelyn Glennie hears differently than I do; my brain's too hard-wired to get auditory data from the eardrums to process all but the crudest sympathetic vibrations coming from the rest of my body. I envy her ability to perceive the world in a way I can't. Still, I think I understand her delight in finding a new sound: I felt something I imagine must be very similar watching this movie. Likely-dead EFC link Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic * * ½ (out of four) Seen 26 November 2005 at Kendall Square #1 (first-run) Someday, hopefully someday soon, somebody in Hollywood is going to figure out how to use Sarah Silverman. Whenever she shows up on a talk show or other event where she's not playing a character, she comes across as smart, sexy, playful, and funny. Whenever she tries to play a part, though, I always get the nagging feeling that she should be better than what we're seeing on-screen. Such is the case with Jesus Is Magic, a short concert film with skits and musical numbers interspersed. Here, her character is an exaggeratedly self-centered comedienne who jokes about grim or controversial subjects but has all the capability for understanding and empathy of a spoiled brat of fourteen. The humor comes from the audience recognizing that it's an act, or the realization that deep down inside, we all look at the world from a perspective of "how does this affect me?" Or at least, it does about half the time. Ms. Silverman's got good comic timing, and some of the bits where she gets off the stage and does a skit or number have a sort of exuberant absurdity. It's a good thing, because a brief post-credits scene demonstrates very clearly that it's not just what you say, but how you say it. Indeed, for material that involves casual racism, callousness, and vanity, it's mostly how you tell it, because the joke itself isn't very funny. And that's okay, I suppose. I suspect an audience member's reaction to this movie depends heavily on how much the meta-joke, or whatever you call it, works for him or her. Once you get past "oh my god, she's making jokes about 9/11" to "it's funny because a self-absorbed character like her would feel harder hit by finding out something's not low-carb than a massive terrorist attack", several later bits are kind of just re-iterations: "Oh my god, she's making jokes about AIDS, but it's kind of funny because..." And so on. She's not a complete one-trick pony, but she does go to trick number one quite a bit. Not a bad movie, and it walks its tightrope well - not the one between being disrespectful and being funny, but the one between courting controversy and recognizing that doing so can be a cheap trick. The Constant Gardener * * * ½ (out of four) Seen 26 November 2005 at Kendall Square #9 (first-run) City of God knocked me on my ass, in part because it was so unexpected - I generally don't expect to find amazing films at the secondary venue of a second-rate film festival. So, when I saw director Fernando Meirelles's name attached to The Constant Gardener, I was more than a little excited. I was also a more than little nervous, though - he wouldn't be the first talented director to make a great movie in his backyard but stumble when suddenly working on different continents, in new languages, with more money than was available in Brazil but also many more expenses. Fortunately, these added challenges only mean that Meirelles makes a movie that is more likely than not the best film playing at the multiplex rather than a debut masterpiece. That's all the more remarkable to me considering that the source material is a novel by John le CarrĂ©; what I've read of him has always struck me as pretty dry. Besides, it means he'll be spending a lot of time working with upper-class English characters, who have a reputation for displaying less emotion than Brazilian street kids. Take Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes). A proper English gentleman he is, pursuing a career in the foreign service, his life is totally in control until he meets Tessa (Rachel Weisz). A fiery activist, Tessa doesn't quite awaken Justin's slumbering idealism, and given all the time she spends with handsome African doctor Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde), it may seem that their marriage is one of convenience - a beautiful wife to accompany him to formal events and a diplomat husband to provide cover and access for her investigations. And maybe, at times, that's how it works; marriages can fall into patterns where there's little visible passion. The film opens with an event sure to clear out the cobwebs, though: Justin identifying Tessa's body. The official explanation is bandits, but Justin's not stupid; he knows about the drug company Tessa was investigating, and he's not going to let her death be for nothing. I wonder at what point the disjointed timeline was introduced in the filmmaking process - was it in the original novel, Jeffrey Caine's script, or was it Meirelles's idea? It's an interesting choice, because it makes the flashback segments almost wholly emotional rather than informational. We know what Tessa is investigating fairly early on, and we know where it's going to lead her. When we see those segments, we see them as they must be in Justin's memory - full of missed opportunities to say "I love you", to get out of the garden he meticulously tends to assist Tessa with her passions, etc. What's interesting about Ralph Fiennes's performance in the "second half" - the portions that take place after Tessa is killed - is how he manages to to simultaneously increase Justin's determination and despair. They're not two emotions one normally thinks of as re-enforcing each other (an inverse relationship is more typical), but it makes him a much more interesting character than the reserved, protocol-following man of the "first half". It's beautifully tragic, really - as Justin becomes more admirable, he simultaneously becomes more an object of the audience's pity. Rachel Weisz and Hubert Kounde have simpler roles, as idealists out to do The Right Thing for Africa, but that doesn't make them less important; we have to believe in them, Tessa especially, for Justin's quest to hit home. Ms. Weisz, especially, does a nice job of being Fiennes's opposite in terms of outspokenness but at the same time being his equivalent emotionally. In terms of how she really feels about Justin and, maybe, Arnold, though, she can be just as reserved as Fiennes, and that makes the quiet moments when this is revealed more quietly powerful. After them, though, the cast falls more into the realm of quietly competent, with Danny Huston, Bill Nighy, Gerald McSorley et al doing the shady-but-unfailingly-proper thing (it actually takes a while to sort out which characters are which). Pete Postlethwaite turns in a nice performance as a doctor with a great weight on his conscience. It occurs to me that I've been able to get nearly to the end of the review and only tangentially touch on the film's ostensible plot - investigating a drug company that is using Africa as a laboratory and dumping ground for spoiled drugs. Although it's not as important an element as Justin's emotional journey, The Constant Gardener does okay as a get-angry movie. Another cast and crew could remake it as such with a love story in the background and wind up with a movie just as good. It's actually kind of a negative; there's a line in the credits about how the story is fictional, but what really goes on would turn your stomach. I wonder if, perhaps, the producers meant to make a more overtly political movie, and wound up sacrificing that intention for a more romantic drama. If so, at least they created good drama. There's plenty of movies that try to be both idealistic and dramatic but manage neither. That, at least, is a trap The Constant Gardener never falls into. Likely-dead EFC link Pride & Prejudice * * * ½ (out of four) Seen 26 November 2005 at AMC Fenway #8 (first-run) There's just too much Pride & Prejudice around. That modernized, transcontinental version with Aishwarya Rai was just in theaters, what, six months ago? One of my former roommates left behind a DVD of an A&E mini-series that can't be too many years old. The IMDB shows a few others. I've got no particular issue with remakes and new adaptations per se, but does it really need to be done more than once or twice a generation? Ah, well. At least this is a nice iteration of the story. That story, of course, is that the five Bennet sisters need to find husbands, but can't afford much of a dowry. New neighbors and their wealthy friend may provide an answer for oldest sisters Jane (Rosamund Pike) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley), but there's also the chance of intrigue and heartbreak. Jane is quickly taken with one Mr. Bingley (Simon Woods), and he seems to reciprocate, while a more antagonistic chemistry appears between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy (Matthew MacFadyen), Bingley's dour friend. In the meantime, a distant cousin arrives looking for a wife, as does an old friend of Darcy's - though Darcy is far from pleased to see him. If I had to guess what made this story so appealing that it has been adapted so many times since Jane Austen first wrote it, I would guess that it's how the Bennet sisters collectively present all the various traits a young girl may find within herself in a more or less positive way: Elizabeth is highly intelligent and independent-minded. Jane is a romantic, overflowing with love to give to the right person. Lydia and Kitty are excitable, impulsive, and boy-crazy, while Mary is awkward and unsure of where her strength will lie, though confident she'll have one. It's a story that can hook young women early, with the strong craft needed to stay appealing after the teen years. Keira Knightley's protagonist is strong-willed and independent enough to not come across as too passive for a modern audience to identify with but still a believable product of her time. Screenwriter Deborah Moggach and director Joe Wright pace things pretty well. It's an adaptation of a novel with a whole bunch of characters, but manages to spread things out so that almost everyone makes a solid impression. I'm not sure exactly why you need both Lydia and Kitty Bennet, but the book's got five sisters, so... The various threads connect well enough, although the movie does at times feel rather episodic, occasionally making little jumps in time and location that sometimes seems anything but the most reasonable course of action. Then again, it may have seemed reasonable two hundred years ago. The trick, I think, is striking the right balance between ritual and romance. The courtship process may sometimes seem devoid of passion, but it also lacks lies, pretending to something you're not, or uncertainty as to what the next step should be; it's like the grand, screen-filling dances scattered throughout the film, engaging despite how precisely choreographed they are. Still, the story is about matches that get made for reasons other than expediency - the quick attraction between Bingley and Jane and the more reluctant, negotiated respect that forms between Darcy and Elizabeth. Their mating game has rules, but they are rules where one can win as well as lose. The cast is agreeable. Keira Knightley's Elizabeth could very easily be a teenager in today's world, smart enough to recognize the world's unfairness but not nearly experienced enough for that sort of cynicism to have made a permanent home in her heart and frightened off any romantic notions she may have. Jane, meanwhile, is made pleasant and admirable by Rosamund Pike despite not being as ambitious or modern as her sister. MacFadyen is handsome yet grumpy as Darcy, while Simon Woods has an easy, laid-back charisma as Bingley. Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn give good support as the Bennet parents - Sutherland is just a big, slobby hulk of a guy who would refuse his daughters nothing if he had anything to give, while Blethyn makes Mrs. Bennet the type who must run a household with specific goals. Also having very specific ideas is Dame Judi Dench as a rather imperious noble who can't quite see the worth of the Bennet girls beyond their humble station. Pride & Prejudice is an oft-told story, but for good reason: It holds up better than a lot of other two-hundred-year-old novels about young women. Stick a cast this good in it, and you're in business. Likely-dead EFC link

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