Thursday, April 05, 2012

Traumatized Children: Monsieur Lazhar and Intruders

A day mostly spent at the Boston Underground Film Festival didn't figure to be a day when I saw good work from a bunch of young actors. But, go figure, I liked the kids in both of these movies, and the little girl in Some Guy Who Kills People, and the boy in Klovn. It wound up becoming the theme for the day, albeit not exactly a pleasant one. (No kids in Gandu, which is probably for the best)

I liked both of the non-BUFF movies quite a bit, and I hope that both do well - though if you want to see Intruders, you'd better do it tonight (Thursday); it's apparently one week and done on one screen in Boston. Monsieur Lazhar is at least a couple of weeks off, or so it seems. And while both are mainly focused on the adults, I don't think either would be nearly as good if the child actors weren't so strong.

It would be hard to imagine two reactions to a movie more opposite than the ones seen here - the audience at the Coolidge loved Monsieur Lazhar, and both they and Boston Globe critic Ty Burr (leading the conversation) seemed genuinely enthused. The audience was, at best, indifferent to Intruders, with one guy walking out about halfway through, quickly followed by a couple of others once they apparently realized this was an option (and yelling "this movie sucks!" as they left). Happily, the movie got pretty good almost right away, but it didn't really seem to draw the audience in; it was kind of willing to let the audience examine it rather than get sucked in.

Both, though, have interesting takes on (SPOILERS!) kids dealing with something traumatic. In Monsieur Lazhar, the horror is completely human and plainly shown - a teacher hanging herself in the classroom, to be found by her students - and Lazhar and his students must deal with it as-is, with him eloquently stating why it's so terrible toward the end. Intruders, in a nifty final-act flashback, turns out to have become a horror movie because Juan could not confront the thing that scared him directly; the monster literally grows from his own fear, and he winds up spreading it to his own daughter before acknowledging it for what it is. (!SRELIOPS)

It's an interesting comparison, I think. Monsieur Lazhar and Intruders are both fairly low-key unusual examples of their respective genres - teacher movies usually have a bit more bombast and inspirational rallying, while few horror movies are quite so willing to unambiguously deconstruct their monsters without being self-referential. I suspect Lazhar will be justly praised for this while Intruders will likely be unjustly forgotten, which is too bad - while Monsieur Lazhar is something special and Intruders is mostly just pretty good, both treat their audience with a very pleasant respect.

Monsieur Lazhar

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 April 2012 in the Coolidge Corner Theatre #2 (Talk Cinema, digital)

Monsieur Lazhar, Canada/Quebec's nominee for best foreign language feature at the recent Oscars, is a quite remarkable piece of work, and all the more so for how quietly and efficiently it goes about its business. It is amazingly low-key for a movie that opens on a moment of genuine horror and could easily become schmaltzy and simple, but no less powerful for it.

At an average-looking primary school in Montreal, a popular teacher has just died in the worst possible way, and Mme. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), the principal, is having some difficulty finding a long-term replacement when Bachir Lazhar walks into her office and volunteers his services. The middle-aged Algerian immigrant soon finds that the classroom is different in Quebec than back home, and finds himself especially concerned with two students who are most directly affected by their teacher's death than others: Alice (Sophie Nélisse), a bright girl whose airline-pilot mother (Evelyne de la Chenelière) is frequently absent, and her best friend Simon (Émilien Néron) - or, at least, the 11-year-olds were best friends before. And even as he becomes closer with his colleagues, they don't realize that his immigration status is not quite as settled as he let on.

One amazing thing about Monsieur Lazhar is how instantly we know the title character. The camera pans from Proulx to Fellag and the audience likes him immediately; even before he says a word, his body language is striking the right balance of relaxed self-confidence and old-world formality. When he speaks, it is with the propriety of a man who understands what sort of responsibility he has taken on but with the humanity of a person with great capacity for cheer and joy. There are several related themes to this movie, but the one most embodied in Fellag's performance is how there are, amid the terrible things that happen in the world, new things to delight in, and you survive the former by making room for the latter. Bachir is so good at it that it should almost be surprising when something like real despair comes, but Fellag has shown just enough hints of what the character has been through that the audience finds itself admiring his quiet strength.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 April 2012 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DLP)

It's hard too believe that Intruders is just Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's third feature film; the past decade-plus has been pretty good for Spanish genre filmmakers whether working in their native tongue or English, and Fresnadillo's 2001 film Intacto was creative and atmospheric. And yet, since then he's only directed 28 Weeks Later before this Spanish/English hybrid. It's puzzling, because he makes good, creepy movies, even if his latest takes a while to get going.

Although their parents dutifully inform them that there are no such things as monsters, two children - Juan (Izán Corchero) in Madrid and Mia (Ella Purnell) in the London suburbs - are about to learn different. A wandering cat leads each of them to encounters with "Hollowface", a formless creature that attempts to steal the faces of children. While Juan's mother Luisa (Pilar López de Ayala) turns to handsome young priest Father Antonio (Daniel Brühl) for help, Mia's working-class father John (Clive Owen) tries to take matters into his own hands, even as her mother Susanna (Carice van Houten) finds herself terrified.

Fresnadillo doesn't mind taking his time to set a movie up; even a sequel like 28 Weeks Later gives the audience a little time to let its concept sink in. That's a double-edged sword here; while the deliberate opening gives the film plenty of time to build atmosphere, introduce storytelling as an important factor in how Hollowface takes shape and becomes a threat, and establish strong parent-child relationships, the split between England and Spain means that everything is, to a certain extent, being done twice, and that does tend to make things seem slower than they actually are. Fresnadillo and screenwriters Nicolás Casariego & Jaime Marquesl also introduce a (literal) mystery box very early on but seem to ignore it for far too long, perhaps because there just aren't enough layers of mystery to it to peel them away slowly.

Full review at EFC.

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