As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Now in Dutch Cinemas

Posted by Hedwig on April 7, 2008

This post is slightly useless as a guide for Dutch people, I suppose, since they can read my reviews in Dutch on Filmtotaal. For me, though, it’s a way of finally writing something in English about all these movies. After the jump, reviews of

Margot at the Wedding
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Naissance des Pieuvres/Water Lilies
Paranoid Park
The Band’s Visit
Mio Fratello e Figlio Unico/My Brother is an Only Child

Margot At The Wedding

It’s rare enough to find strong, complex, intriguing, thoroughly flawed characters. It’s even rarer for them to be female. And yet here, that’s what we have: Nicole Kidman is absolutely brilliant as the passive-aggressive Margot, who’s both repulsive and alluring, scary and oddly familiar. And while she is undoubtedly the center of the movie, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black and beginner Zane Pais are just as precisely drawn and sharply observed as Margot’s sister, her brother-in-law-to-be, and her son, who you can tell she’s already irrevocably screwed up, despite the fact that she does love him.

One moment I love is with Margot’s husband – John Turturro, for once playing the most normal person in sight). He does something nice – something wholly insignificant, but totally altruistic. And Margot gets furious. She can’t stand it, because somehow her husband doing something good highlights how not good she is. And the scene in the bookstore, where she’s asked about her inspiration, and misinterprets the question in a telling way… well, whether Noah Baumbach uses his family as inspiration of not, that’s good writing.

The film’s too raw to be called perfect, and the business with the neighbors isn’t quite necessary, but I wish there were more films like this: sharp, funny, and with at the center a woman who’s not only strong but fully-fleshed out, uncompromising, and uncompromised. IT takes balls to be such a bitch on screen, someone who’s not just unlikeable but unlikeable in a non-stereotypical, almost too-close-for-comfort way.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Praise has been heaped on Lumet’s latest, but I don’t quite get it. I agree, the performances are stellar and some individual scenes are incredibly strong. But what’s with all the jumping back and forth in time, and why the jarring way of doing it? I know, playing with continuity is all the craze….or wait, what’s that? It’s not the nineties anymore? Nope, it isn’t, and while I have nothing against playing with timelines in general, I do have something again pointless jumping back and forth in time.

And pointless it is. No new information is given that we couldn’t have guessed, the “perspective shifts” have no use since the storytelling remains wholly objective, and it makes the story drag. Lumet wanted to make a Greek tragedy, it seems, but this has none of the grace of gravitas of a Greek tragedy, and the conclusion is based more on (mis)fortune than on a decisive character flaw.

I feel like I might be too hard on this film. After all, some scenes (like Marisa Tomei’s departure and what follows) are really good. But with all the acclaim the film’s been given, I feel like a dissenting voice is called for.

Naissance des Pieuvres/Water Lilies

One of my absolute favorites from the film festival in Rotterdam, this moody, beautiful film is one of the best depictions of adolescence ever put on screen. And like Margot, this one’s exceptional also for the gender it chooses to imagine. I don’t think any other film evokes so strongly the feeling of being a 15-yo girl. It made me remember all too clearly…and I was relieved when I realized I’ve now truly left that stage of my life behind.

Marie, Anne, Floriane: the three main characters are stereotypes, at least in their broad outline. The still childish girl, the chubby girl, the pretty one: we’ve seen them before. These stereotypes make the story accessible, and make this at least look like a general story. Luckily, the details are also sufficiently filled in to make sure these are also real girls, full of insecurities and shattered hopes. They’re not innocent – children never are – but they do lose, in the course of the film, a certain sort of innocence.

The French title means “birth of the squids”. The legs of the synchronized swimmers, seen in gorgeous underwater shots, do look like the tentacles of a squid. Most of all though, the synchronized swimming serves as a potent metaphor for, to paraphrase director Céline Sciamma, the plight of being a girl/woman: all smiles on the surface, and a frantic struggle below.

Paranoid Park

Yet another languorous meditation on, well, stuff, from Gus van Sant, and a nice pairing with Water Lilies as this is again a film from a teenage perspective in which adults are almost absent. The faces of the parents in Paranoid Park stay out of focus, and the only one we see clearly, detective Lu, is clearly an outsider trying – but failing – to breach the teenage world.

This van Sant film unfortunately lacks the clarity of the so-called death trilogy (Elephant, Gerry, Last Days) and is sometimes a bit too reminiscent of his older work (it takes place in Portland, there are long tracking shots through school corridors, there’s music by Elliott Smith etc.). However, it does have an amazing soundscape, with everything from Nino Rota music to country to electronic bleeps. Also, Gabe Nevins, a non-professional recruited on MySpace, is entirely devoid of the self-consciousness you usually see in teen actors, and his narration is pitch-perfect.

I whined about the time shifting in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead – well, here the device is used correctly, i.e., with a purpose. This purpose is not to withhold information, as we figure out pretty soon more or less what happened. But as the whole story is told from the perspective of main character Alex, it makes sense that he circles around the crucial event, that he focuses extensively on the periods just before and just after the moment that he’d rather not think about too much.

The Band’s Visit

Not many films start by a statement of their own insignificance. “Once-not long ago-a small Egyptian police band arrived in Israel. Not many remember this…It wasn’t that important.” And it’s the truth: this is not a grand, important story, there isn’t even much story there. But these people are a delight to spend some time with, and it’s one of those films that thrives on beautiful little character moments. That it doesn’t address the conflict in the Middle-East is, to me, not a cop-out but a reminder that behind all the hatred that we keep hearing about on the news, these really are just people.

And let’s not forget: it’s funny. Very funny, even, though not necessarily in a laugh-out-loud way. There’s much visual humor: director Kolirin loves placing the men, in their baby blue uniforms, in frames, and the contrast between their formality and the desolation of their surroundings is funny in itself. But there are also great moments of character humor, for instance in how Haled’s standard way of seducing girls is to start singing my funny Valentine.

At the heart of the movie, there’s a great atypical romance. Ronit Elkabetz is beautiful as diner-owner Dina, and Sasson Gabai makes it entirely believable that he’s the one she would choose to pursue over the pretty (and easy) Haled. In the lines of his face you can read the whole story of his life, and it’s fascinating.

Mio Fratello È Figlio Unico/ My Brother is an Only Child

Like La Meglio Gioventú/The Best of Youth, by the same screenwriters, this film follows a family to show a part of Italy’s turbulent history. Accio joins the fascists after he leaves the seminary (it’s not strict enough for him); his brother Manrico, looser and more charismatic, is a communist. Throw in a girl they both fall in love with, and you have yourself a story.

It’s all very entertaining and very nicely done, and I have to admit I initially was very enthusiastic about this movie. Three months later, however, very little lingers, and I don’t quite feel like I now know more about Italy than I did before. The movie doesn’t quite dig deep enough – that said, it does feature some very sympathetic actors, some great scenes, and it’s certainly not a bad way to spend a couple of hours – but maybe watching it at home, and not in the cinema.

Some other films I’ve already written about:

Strongly recommended: No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, I’m Not There and (if you happen to live in Stadskanaal) The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Recommended: The Darjeeling Limited, Atonement, Juno, Lars and the Real Girl, Das Leben der Anderen, You, the Living

Interesting but unsatisfying: Lady Chatterley, Persepolis, Sweeney Todd

Not Recommended: Jumper

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8 Responses to “Now in Dutch Cinemas”

  1. Merijn said

    I turned off Before The Devil Knows 40 minutes before it ended because the story was going nowhere slow. Also the movie was depressing. 😦

  2. Wow, great stuff here 🙂

    I still have not seen Margot sadly, when it opens I will be first in line. If it opens. In fact, there is a lot I have not seen. Same with Water Lilies. And The Band’s Visit.

    I have seen Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead and Paranoid Park and I loved them both. I do remember the time shifting in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead to be off putting at times, but it was utilized beautifully in Paranoid Park. Paranoid Park is one of the best films I have seen in a long time and I do not think I will forget about it anytime soon.

  3. Daniel said

    I love your thoughts on The Band’s Visit, Hedwig. Really great points that get right to heart of a fantastic film.

    Jumper might be considered instead a “NOT RECOMMENDED – EVER. AT ALL, FOR ANY REASON.” It’s the worst of ’08 so far for me.

  4. Alison Flynn said

    I have to agree with Daniel. Your write-up on The Band’s Visit is lovely and your description of what the film is and what it encompasses hits the nail right on the head. And you already know that I second the awesome-ness of Water Lilies. 🙂

  5. sarcastig said

    Heh, Daniel: I actually gave Jumper a borderline pass at first. Then I tried to imagine how I’d feel if I’d actually PAID to see it…and well, I wouldn’t have been quite as lenient.

    I’m really glad about all the love The Band’s Visit has been getting. It’s just such a lovely little film, not a masterpiece, but not aspiring to be one, just concentrating on having a few nice human moments.

    And I definitely need to see Paranoid Park again: I’m afraid that in the middle of the festival, I might not have been as receptive to it as I maybe should have been. I liked it, but my first reaction was one of mild disappointment, because my expectations were sky-high, and it felt a little like a repetition of moves by van Sant. After reading so many impassioned reviews, I feel like I might have missed out on the greatness of it. I did love the looping way the story is told, and the teenage perspective was very well done.

  6. […] it came modestly recommended from LiC familiars Alison Flynn and Paul Clark. It was also one of Hedwig’s favorite movies of the most recent Rotterdam Film Festival. So who are you going to believe? (My […]

  7. I know I am really weird, but having only seen, and loved, “The Band’s Visit” yesterday, and I am about to watch “Water Lilies” right now, I hope I feel the same way about it as you did, I am a big fan of adolescence depiction done right – its gets me every time, but then again I thought “Paranoid Park” was a masterpiece….we’ll see, and I’ll run back and tell you when I am done.

  8. Okay, I am just as impressed with “Water Lilies” as you were Hedwig, I think anyway. I’m perplexed, and I also feel embarrassed that I didn’t expect too much from the film, and have been able to feel more moved by a film than I have in ages. Wow.

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