Friday, January 27, 2012

My week's movies

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This seemed about the best bet playing locally, both in its topic – a picture with some relationship to Sept. 11 and in its theme – a boy’s search for – what? – meaning in relation to that trauma? The movie is based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer, who also wrote Everything is Illuminated, also made into a film (2005) and directed by Liev Schreiber starring Elijah Wood. And in some ways it’s similar. Both involve prolonged and convoluted searches. In this case the story is about nine year old Oskar Schell (Thomas Thorn, discovered on kids’ Jeopardy - seriously), who possibly has Asperger Syndrome. There’s no question the kid is bright but also hyperactive and neurotic. Oskar has formed a special bond with his dad, Thomas (Tom Hanks)  (a lot of Toms here, I know) and they often play a game about discovering New York’s lost Sixth Borough, which at the end of the film I think might be a stand in for the 3000 souls lost in the Twin Towers. For some this may seem a bizarre and quite unbelievable story. But it’s really magic realism and your mind has to play along. After his father’s passing Oskar finds an envelope with a key that belonged to his dad. On the envelope is written the word “Black.” Oskar becomes fixated on it and decides he is going to search all the five boroughs of New York where anyone with the name “Black” lives to see if the key opens something that they own. In his travels he hooks up with an elderly tenant of his next door German grandmother. The tenant is played by Max von Sydow, always a pleasure to watch, except that in this movie he is silent, communicating only by notes. The character stopped talking after witnessing a bombing during World War II. Through their travels by foot, bus and subway, the man starts to act as a kind of philosophical guide to Oskar. Hanks and Oskar’s mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock) have smaller roles. This film really is all about Horn, who is pretty good, given he’s depicting someone who’s constantly assertive, in your face and manic. It’s almost enough to give you a headache but not quite, only leaving you with the words, “Okay, that was interesting, I guess.” Does it work as magic realism? Perhaps. But I still found the plot annoying as if the writer was just coming up with something to, well, play - in the manipulative sense - with my mind. This is the first film drama (directed by accomplished Brit stage director Stephen Daldry) I’ve seen that goes into some depth about Sept. 11’s impact on loved ones. And it’s also a kind of ode to New York, with numerous scenes of Central Park, Manhattan and various outer boroughs. Scenes of people falling from the World Trade Center are enough to bring tears. So if the film serves as a kind of meditative experience it’s perhaps worth seeing.

 The Mill and the Cross, (2011) which screens again this weekend at the Detroit Film Theatre, is a drama directed by Lech Majewski and starring Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling and Michael York. It’s the first film I’ve seen that takes a famous painting, Pieter Bruegel’s The Way to Calvary (1564) and through the wonders of current film technology (green screens, anyone?) is able to make a few of the characters in that vast landscape “come to life” and tell their stories. Basically it’s an allegory for Christ’s Crucifixion inspired by of the Spanish Inquisition and its persecution of Protestants in Flanders. It’s dark, brooding and - sorry, folks - relentlessly sad. The colours are extremely vivid and most scenes look like art gallery paintings. If you like history of that period, Bruegel (who, let’s face it, is one of the world’s most extraordinary painters), contemplating the heartlessness of man, or simply admire innovative cinematography, you might enjoy this, though enjoy isn’t quite the word. Otherwise you’ll probably be grumbling (to yourself, I hope), if not trying to keep your eyes open.

Finally, there is always the delightful Jacques Tati, and his film (on DVD) Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953). Tati is a wonderful treat. He only made six full length films. But he stars in all of them. Every one I’ve seen is terrific and all deal with the absurdities of everyday life. They’re filled with sight gags and misunderstandings and Hr. Hulot is no different. I prefer his Mon Oncle (1958) – about modern architecture - and Play Time (1967). Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is not quite as imaginative and is more reminiscent of The Three Stooges or W. C. Fields. But it was also made earlier than Tati's other films and therefore less sophisticated. But anything this guy made is pretty hilarious and definitely worth seeing.

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