Archive for February 2008

Penelope

February 29, 2008

How? How can a movie with this premise and this cast be so mercilessly dull and stupid? The titular heroine of Penelope (Christina Ricci) was born with a pig snout for a nose, the result of an old curse placed on her family. To break the curse, she must win the love of a “blueblood” like herself. So Penelope’s overbearing mother (Catherine O’Hara) sends for dozens of potential suitors, all of whom run screaming from her hideous visage, crashing through windows. The problem is, Penelope isn’t hideous at all; Christina Ricci is actually rather cute in her prosthetic. So the movie seems off right from the start. If you’re going to make a fable about a woman learning to overcome her deformity, make sure she has a deformity to overcome.

Penelope seems to be set in some fairy-tale conflation of New York and London — half the cast is British, and not all of them bother to Americanize their accents. (The film was shot mostly in London.) People use rotary phones and typewriters, too, so I guess we’re supposed to take the introductory “Once upon a time” title card literally. It’s a whimsical fantasy, then, and it seems to be aimed straight at the hearts of impressionable teenage girls (who would probably rather see Juno again than see this). But it takes forever to get to the point, and our time until then is taken up with the usually dependable Catherine O’Hara obnoxiously playing to the rafters, and a pre-Atonement James McAvoy (Penelope has been on the shelf for at least two years) morosely tickling the ivories after Penelope has rejected him, and Peter Dinklage providing the only mild laughs as a one-eyed reporter who first wants to expose Penelope and then has a change of heart.

I was unsurprised to learn that the movie was written by Leslie Caveny, a writer and producer on Everybody Loves Raymond, and directed by first-timer Mark Palansky, who spent about a decade as an assistant on, and then second-unit director for, various Michael Bay productions. I’d like to think that the creative marriage of a sitcom writer and a Michael Bay protegé might produce a wonderful child, but Penelope is stillborn, even though Reese Witherspoon, in her first effort as a producer, midwifed it. (Witherspoon plays a small, highly extraneous role as Penelope’s new friend who makes deliveries on her winged motorcycle.) What on earth did Witherspoon see in this material?

The minute we lay eyes on James McAvoy, we know he’s going to be the one for Penelope — he’s not like all the other suitors, and he gets a teasing rhythm going with Ricci, who’s otherwise pretty stranded up there, never getting to use her gift for sarcasm or even any garden-variety smarts. Penelope is just pushed this way and that by fate. The movie is surprising in one regard only: I never thought I’d see a movie in which such supporting players as Richard E. Grant (the mighty Withnail himself!), Nick Frost, Russell Brand, and Lenny Henry — seasoned British comedians all; maybe Witherspoon watches BBC America a lot — are completely unfunny. Penelope is useful as an example of how the talents of many — and I include Witherspoon, who I hope has a shinier future as a producer — can be overridden by an untalented writer and director. It plays like a Lifetime TV movie made by people who love everything about Tim Burton’s work except that dark gothic stuff.

Be Kind Rewind

February 22, 2008

If you were around for the great VCR boom of the ’80s, and you were young enough to be awed at the wealth of possibilities — all those movies at the town video store, waiting for you to take them home — you may find it very hard to dislike Be Kind Rewind. Not just an ode to a dead format, Michel Gondry’s film passionately defends everything dead or dying in cinema: the communal experience, the heady notion that you can make your own movies and show them to a large and appreciative audience, the idea that art trumps commerce and beloved neighborhood treasure-chests of movies — whether mom-and-pop video stores or art-house theaters — will always be there. The very title — shared by the film’s dusty, failing video shop — is not only a nod to the stickers on videocassettes meant to guilt you into rewinding them before returning them; it’s an exhortation to go back in time, probably to the ’80s, when indie filmmakers seemingly emerged every month, and the landscape of the movie industry, despite it being the decade of Spielberg and Stallone, seemed a little kinder to artists.

The villain of Be Kind Rewind seems to be progress itself, or at least the wolf of corporate capitalism in the sheep’s clothing of “progress.” The titular shop, squatting in the bottom floor of a condemned building in Passaic, New Jersey, has seen better days. Its owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover), has to raise some serious cash to ward off developers who want to demolish the building. Mr. Fletcher leaves for a little while, to spy on a competing chain store, and gives his loyal employee Mike (Mos Def) the run of the place. Mike has been ordered not to let Jerry (Jack Black), his wacko friend, into the shop. But Jerry blunders in anyway, after having been shocked at a power plant, and inadvertently magnetizes every videotape in the place, wiping them out.

Clearly, there’s only one solution: Mike and Jerry must make their own versions of the movies. They are only about twenty minutes long. They cost more to rent, because Mike and Jerry now have to pay for making these movies. Why are they so expensive, a customer asks. Because … they’re sweded, Jerry somehow comes up with. They are … uh … Swedish versions, and special. Soon, customers (including Mia Farrow as a batty old lady who just wants nice films) line up around the block to rent sweded movies, which always look like backyard camcorder quickies starring Mike and Jerry (and, eventually, other people in the neighborhood). I warn you not to take this plot literally for a moment. Be Kind Rewind is a fantasy-comedy, much in the vein of an ’80s fantasy-comedy; the scene in which Jerry gets electrocuted, for instance, could have been extracted intact from something like Weird Science … or Ghostbusters, the first movie to get the sweding treatment.

Jack Black doesn’t seem to belong in this movie’s scruffy unreality; as I’ve said before, usually admiringly, he’s never not Jack Black onscreen. Jerry could probably be played by just about anyone, and with Jack Black in the role, there’s very little pretense that he’s Jerry, a junkyard worker who believes that the FBI is gonna get him with radiation in his brain. But note how Michel Gondry uses him, as a found object. He lets Jack Black loose in a Michel Gondry movie and never quite lets him turn it into a Jack Black movie. Be Kind Rewind is more about the community, and its anchor is the vaguely melancholy Mike, who looks at Mr. Fletcher as a father figure and is fixated on the idea that Fats Waller was born in this building. Why? Because Mr. Fletcher told him so when he was a kid. Why Fats Waller? I think Gondry reveres him as a master improv artist; the sweded videos are nothing if not improv (it probably doesn’t hurt that Waller’s music is prominent on the soundtrack of Eraserhead, and Jerry is sort of a literal eraserhead).

The movie isn’t a laugh a minute. I doubt Gondry means it to be. The clips we see of the sweded videos are more touching than funny, and sometimes the comedy derives more from the ingenuity shown in the sweding, such as the brilliant idea of using a fan and some string to make a video look like a scratchy, flickery silent film. This technique is used in Mike and Jerry’s magnum opus, Fats Waller Was Born “Here” — the last word in quotations, signifying that even if he wasn’t literally born “here” in the building, his legacy has led to the revitalization of the neighborhood. Everyone pitches in to make and act in the film, and everyone comes on “opening night” to see themselves and their family and friends on “film.”

No other contemporary film artists — directors who stubbornly follow their own muses, with few concessions to the mainstream — are as playful or as good-hearted as Gondry. (He also got his start in the ’80s.) Be Kind Rewind is both artful and lovable, a rare combo indeed, and it’s a glowing valentine to creativity in opposition to commerce, using whatever shabby materials are at hand.

And in an interesting if predictable twist, more people have made their own sweded videos and posted them on YouTube than probably saw the movie in theaters. (There’s even, of course, a sweded version of Be Kind Rewind, the ultimate meta-compliment.) Some of them are inspired. Some of them are not. All of them are part of a kind of low-rent homegrown revolution that values seat-of-the-pants DIY artistry over sitting passively in front of the latest expensive studio turd. Fats Waller was reborn “here.”

Charlie Bartlett

February 22, 2008

Are teenagers today so hungry for a sympathetic ear that they’ll fall in line, cult-like, behind anyone who gives them drugs and listens to their complaints? That’s the impression left by Charlie Bartlett, which had been knocking around unreleased for a while until MGM, apparently hoping they had another Juno on their hands, dusted it off for a slow February weekend. Parts of Charlie Bartlett are enjoyable, especially Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as a high-school principal who hates his life. Too much of it, though, is pilfered from other films (good and bad), and what we’re left with is a mildly contemptuous portrait of teenagers, fleshed out in only the most rudimentary and predictable ways.

Charlie (Anton Yelchin) is a privileged lad who’s been booted out of any number of private schools. His modus operandi seems to be to ingratiate himself with his fellow students by “helping” them in illegal ways: his latest offense is making fake IDs. Charlie, who daydreams of being beloved by masses of students chanting his name, quickly figures out how to fit in at his new public school: he gets psychiatric meds from various shrinks and sells them to students while encouraging them to vent about their issues. (The “therapy” scenes unfold in adjoining toilet stalls, a parody of a confessional, with Charlie as priest.) The movie, directed by former editor Jon Poll from a script by first-timer Gustin Nash, clearly disapproves of medicating students and deplores the society that feeds them Ritalin to extract their rebellious spirit. Charlie, after all, is only doing what the kids’ parents would pay to have done professionally if they could afford it.

It’s too bad that the screenplay follows the same track as many of Gustin Nash’s favorite films. Charlie himself is Ferris Bueller, Max Fischer, Harold Chasen, Lloyd Dobler, take your pick of cool misfits. He falls in love with the principal’s daughter (Kat Dennings). He turns the school bully (Tyler Hilton, looking like a butch version of Morrissey) into his business partner in his pharmacological endeavors. His mom (Hope Davis) is Xanaxed (and moneyed) out of reality. He befriends a mentally challenged kid and hires him as muscle. If there’s an original voice here, it gets lost in the cacophony of previous original voices Nash cribs from.

The actors, including the sometimes-annoying Yelchin, mostly take their cue from the deadpan style of Wes Anderson films, which works better in Wes Anderson films. The only person in the movie who suggests real, painful experience is Downey’s Principal Gardner. Downey speaks very quietly and precisely and with a covert wit that tells you that Gardner, a former history teacher, really isn’t cut out for a disciplinarian role. Gardner watches the students dyspeptically on a camera system, which provides the film’s third-act conflict (this time cribbed from Do the Right Thing). We get it: Kids are drugged and spied on to prevent another Columbine, and people like Gardner, who remember what they were like as teenagers, meekly acquiesce to the administration. Downey calmly stays in the moment, as he’s always done, and carries his scenes effortlessly.

A movie that focused on the prickly relationship between Gardner and his daughter, who awkwardly attends his school, would’ve been a different movie but a better one. Charlie Bartlett simply isn’t unique or interesting enough in itself to play in the same league as its betters; it doesn’t even have the controversially stylized dialogue of Juno. Despite the occasional insight, it’s a rather bland affair, a narcissist’s wish-fulfillment that softens every conflict and deadens emotion as effectively as Charlie’s prescriptions or Gardner’s desk bottle of booze. Though it gives lip service to Rebellion and Being Yourself, it’s essentially a megalomaniacal nerd’s dream of having people chant his name, stand in line to talk to him, and do whatever he says without question. Charlie Bartlett comes out for something new and weird: geek fascism.

Diary of the Dead

February 15, 2008

Would George A. Romero have a directorial voice without zombies? Sure; he’s made plenty of other types of films. But it’s the walking dead he keeps returning to, partly because the money is always there for zombie flicks, partly because the flesh-eater is, for Romero, such a prodigious springboard for commentary. Whatever’s wrong with society when Romero sits down to write the script can be funneled into a tale of survivors vs. the voracious undead.

Diary of the Dead, Romero’s reboot of the series he started in 1968, can’t help but come off a bit been-there-done-that. The whole thing is “found footage,” just as in The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and [REC] — the latter, I have to say, packed more of a nightmarish punch than anything in Diary. We’re following a group of film students who happen to be shooting a cheapjack mummy flick out in the woods when the strange reports begin to trickle in. The recently dead are rising; they get up and kill (if you’re me, your mind will fill in with “The people they kill get up and kill!”). We see some news footage wherein two corpses leave their stretchers and start gnawing on people in the background of the shot; the resulting chaos is seen glancingly, in a panic, and is chilling to witness.

Why do the camera operators in these films keep shooting? The practical answer is that if they didn’t, there wouldn’t be a movie. The textual answer is that they can’t help recording and recording, and maybe trying to put some camera-eye distance between themselves and the horror. Romero uses this for a good deal of satire, which sometimes hits and sometimes misses. In the era of YouTube and reality TV and all the rest, when people broadcast themselves in all their mundanity, Romero must feel that an entire generation doesn’t think something is real unless it’s on camera. He must feel this so strongly, in fact, that he has a character come out and say it not once but twice.

Yeah, you and I get it. Maybe other viewers need a sledgehammer more than a scalpel (and Romero’s writing has always been more than a little blunt, too on-the-nose). Diary of the Dead (the more accurate title Document of the Dead having been used for Roy Frumkes’ 1985 behind-the-scenes Dawn of the Dead doc) is meant to capture the fancy of the same kids who came out for Cloverfield, and Romero has a lot he wants to tell the youngsters. Don’t assume the government will come to the rescue: post-Katrina was a sharp reality slap on that score. Don’t trust the military. Once again, as in Land of the Dead, the rich are scum who hide in luxury while the outside world goes mad. And humanity’s true, ugly colors come out during the zombie catastrophe; Romero seals the film by asking if we’re worth saving. What the fuck, he seems to be saying, let the zombies have it all.

That produces a nihilistic chill worthy of Diary‘s predecessors. Many have tried, but few (if any) have successfully aped Romero’s particular vision of apocalypse; the closest was a comedy, Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, which played very much as though its events were plausibly what was happening across the pond while Romero’s Pittsburgh survivors were contending with the same problem. In Romero’s apocalypse, the brutish and soulless hold sway, and that’s just the humans.

The gore here is a mix of practical effects (by Greg Nicotero, who got his start with Romero on Day of the Dead) and computer-generated splatter. Sometimes it jars the eye. Sometimes, though, the CGI enables effects that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, like the sight of a zombie’s skull being eaten away by hydrochloric acid in one unbroken shot as he shambles towards us. That gratified the old gorehound in me, as did the longbow wielded by the students’ saturnine professor (Scott Wentworth, the oldest and best of the actors here). There is a genuinely terrible scene meant to jokingly echo the mummy footage that begins the movie, but it doesn’t last long. Neither does the movie, which ends rather abruptly, as though the student filmmakers (or Romero) had run out of camera batteries. But the last images speak of ghastly inhumanity on several levels, and dead eyes stare out at us accusingly.

Jumper

February 14, 2008

In the thick portfolio of superpowers, teleportation ranks a bit low on the excitement scale. You’re here — now you’re there. I suppose it’s useful if you’re in a hurry, or if you want to beat traffic. (I’d see a lot more movies if I could “jump” to any theater I wanted.) The protagonist of Jumper, David Rice (Hayden Christensen), doesn’t use his space-hopping for the greater good or even for anything interesting. He sits in his lush New York loft, paid for with money he stole from banks (he “jumps” into vaults and makes off with bags of cash), and watches world catastrophes unfold on TV without lifting a finger. People are trapped in a flood! Who can get in there to save them? Not David. He doesn’t care. He changes the channel.

Jumper might have been the story of how this jaded, affectless young man learns to harness his powers to help mankind. It isn’t, though. Heavily indebted to X-Men (by way of Steven Gould’s 1992 young-adult novel), the movie sets David on a fight-and-retreat loop. David, you see, is but one in a long line of Jumpers, who have been persecuted for centuries by zealous Christian assassins known as Paladins. The Paladins’ reasoning? “Nobody but God should have this power.” Uh, okay. So why’d God give them the power in the first place? The Paladins aren’t much on thinking the argument through. So essentially all David does is run from the Paladins (whose leader is Samuel L. Jackson, carrying some sort of jumping-prohibitive cattle prod) and try to protect his high-school sweetheart (Rachel Bilson). Not much seems to be at stake. The Paladins don’t even want to use the Jumpers for their own evil purposes; they just want them dead. It’s a private conflict. I felt like quoting the guy in Pulp Fiction: “My name’s Paul, and this is between y’all.”

Did the director, Doug Liman, care much about the conflict either? Like other recent Liman films (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), this just seems like a movie his agent said he should do. I wasn’t a big fan of Liman’s debut Swingers, but at least it had some personality and some humans, and his sophomore effort Go was fun enough. But it’s clearer than ever that Liman is a hack, or, to put it more gently, a journeyman director who’s only as good as the script. After a while, the mild novelty of seeing Hayden Christensen go whoosh from one spot to another gets tiresome. Once or twice Liman actually uses the film language of jump cuts to convey the effect, but only once or twice. An experimental filmmaker could’ve made wild cinema out of this, but experimental filmmakers usually don’t get handed $85 million. Guys like Doug Liman do.

As a fellow Jumper who squats in a cluttered hideout and occasionally zips out to pick off a Paladin or two, Jamie Bell gives the film some much-needed humor and energy. He effortlessly swipes the movie out from under the dishwater-dull Christensen, presumably cast as the lead because of his Star Wars association. Even Teddy Dunn, as a baffled drunk who once bullied David, blows Christensen away. I’m prepared to eat my words if I ever get around to seeing Shattered Glass and Life as a House, in which Christensen is reputedly not like a cheeseburger without the cheese or the burger, but he definitely doesn’t have the moxie for big special-effects movies. He and the equally bland Rachel Bilson were last-minute replacements for other actors, and it shows.

Jumper raked in $26 million over a slow February weekend from moviegoers with nothing better to do, apparently. The movie’s only 88 minutes long, but I found my mind wandering: Perhaps I could jump to a city art-house theater showing George Romero’s Diary of the Dead, or the acclaimed 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, or the horror-comedy Teeth, or the Lebanese comedy-drama Caramel. Those films, and many others you haven’t seen advertised ad nauseum, are out there in a tiny handful of theaters. Jumper opened on 3,428 screens. Remember that when they start gassing on about the magic of movies on Oscar night. They’re talking about the movies you never get to see in theaters, not movies like Jumper.

Bernard and Doris

February 9, 2008

When a very rich and famous person dies and leaves a chunk of money to someone considerably less rich and famous, it is perhaps natural to be cynical about the circumstances. It’s also natural for a movie to be less cynical. I suspect that fans of 1980’s Melvin and Howard don’t really care whether Melvin Dummar was actually named in Howard Hughes’ will; it’s still a beautiful film. Likewise, the new HBO original film Bernard and Doris — seemingly so named to evoke the earlier movie — is such a tenderly crafted study of the platonic love between the heiress Doris Duke and her butler Bernard Lafferty that I find myself uninterested in Googling the real Lafferty and reading up on all the allegations. Did he influence his ailing, drug-addled employer? Did he conspire to murder her? There’s no poetry in any of that.

Increasingly, cable is where you go if you’re interested in acting, and Bernard and Doris offers teamwork you could’ve expected to see on the big screen in better times for grown-up cinema: Susan Sarandon — who somehow keeps looking better — as Doris and Ralph Fiennes as Bernard. As the movie tells it, Doris took a liking to the withdrawn, humble Bernard, encouraging him out of his shell and out of the closet, to the point where he grew his hair into a ponytail and took to wearing makeup, scarves and caftans around the house. Bernard, who grew up poor and Irish, had worked for Elizabeth Taylor and Peggy Lee; he was perhaps the particular type of gay man that ensures entourages for formidable women like Cher, Madonna, Barbra, or Judy — drawn to and fascinated by the mix of feminine vulnerability and female power.

Early on, Doris staggers home from the hospital after a nip and tuck, demanding booze and painkillers. Bernard tries to usher her to bed, but she, already pretty blitzed, pushes him away into a wall. Then she apologizes, and thus is born a bond forged on mutual enabling. Director Bob Balaban (whose touch is as delicate and detail-oriented as his acting often is) and screenwriter Hugh Costello keep a steady balance, acknowledging that some aspects of this relationship were healthy and some weren’t. The alcoholic Bernard, for instance, isn’t likely to stay on the wagon in a household full of vintage wine.

“What do you want from me?” Doris asks; Bernard says “To take care of you,” and he means it. Sarandon puts on her usual show of toughness and wit, and she’s terrifically entertaining at it, but it’s pretty much Fiennes’ show. His Bernard is a nicely modulated blend of repression and playfulness; Bernard has found someone who’ll indulge him, for better or worse. At certain points he hangs out with her at social gatherings, behaving like a husband rather than a servant, and she doesn’t see any need to correct him. To her, he’s the ideal husband she never had: undemanding sexually, tolerant of her dalliances with gardeners and pianists, and dismissible at will. Only once, when he forbids her to have around-the-clock nurses (he’d rather see to her medical needs himself), does he impose any sort of will on her.

It’s an unequal relationship, but an unusual one to see in movies, especially treated so warmly and nonjudgmentally. Bernard and Doris also keeps sentimentality at a minimum, and takes its potential clichés (the rich hellraiser, the gay butler) and finds something fresh in them. In a late scene, celebrating Doris’ birthday quietly over candlelight and drinks (non-alcoholic? we don’t know), Bernard is wearing a gown, dangling earrings, and lipstick, and Doris doesn’t bat an eye. We don’t, either, because at that point we understand Bernard. He’s nothing so mundane as a crossdresser; he’s spent so long ministering to the needs of fabulously wealthy women, and kept an inner life in which he identifies with them despite an outer life of poverty, that on some level he has become one. So has he submerged his own personality to that extent, or has that been his personality all along, waiting for the right person to bring it out? Under this movie’s benign and fastidious surface such questions coil up like earthworms, much more interesting than the tabloid version of events. I don’t care what the “real” Bernard was like; I cared about the movie’s Bernard.

The Eye (2008)

February 1, 2008

The world possibly needed another Hollywood remake of an Asian horror film. And so we have The Eye, actually one of the better remakes (which isn’t saying much) but still not as chilling as its source, the Pang Brothers’ Gin Gwai (2002). That film had three classic scares: one in a hospital hallway, one during a calligraphy class, and one in an elevator. Howard Hawks said that a good movie has three great scenes and no bad scenes; I don’t remember any bad scenes in Gin Gwai, and the remake doesn’t really have any either, but it also doesn’t have any great scenes, despite copying its predecessor’s three great scenes. So: neither a good movie nor a bad movie, The Eye is just … a movie, sitting there unnecessarily.

The hospital-hallway scene is a good example of the superiority of the Pangs’ style over that of David Moreau and Xavier Palud (the 2006 French thriller Them), who co-directed the remake. Sydney Wells (Jessica Alba), blind since age five, has just had a cornea transplant. As she lies in bed recuperating, her sight still very blurry, she notices her elderly roommate wandering off with a shadowy figure. Sydney goes to investigate, and what follows is edited in the smash-and-grab manner of most horror these days (the venerable Outlaw Vern at AICN calls it “Avid farts”). The Pangs set it up slowly, ominously, without resorting to what looks like a fright wig. What scared us was the unearthly, moaning presence, in a well-lit hallway, of something that’s just barely visible. Moreau and Palud oversell the shock tactics here and in the other scenes.

Sydney keeps having nightmarish visions, and of course her jerky doctor (Alessandro Nivola) won’t believe her. Is her mind rejecting sight by dreaming up phantasms to scare her? Neither film really gets too deeply into that possibility; the horror is all too clearly supernatural. Here I must admit something: Effective as it is, Gin Gwai isn’t the epitome of originality, either. In both films, what’s behind the blurry curtain is that old standby, the Restless Ghost Who Has Something to Tell You. So you spend the movie watching the protagonist trying to figure out the Something that he or she is Being Told. Duplicating this premise, The Eye will come across to some younger viewers as a rehash of The Ring or The Grudge. It’s actually a rehash of Hamlet, and maybe farther back than that.

Alba is acceptable in the role; internet cranks like to badmouth her (probably because she keeps turning up in geek enterprises like Sin City and the Fantastic Four movies), but I never find her particularly bad, just amiably bland. She looks especially dull next to Parker Posey, as her neurotically worried sister who carries a heap of guilt over Sydney’s accidental blinding; Posey isn’t in her funky wheelhouse here, but she brings something specifically urban and quietly frazzled to her work. Then the movie brings in Rachel Ticotin and Tamlyn Tomita, too rarely seen in movies today, and too rarely seen in this one (I think Tomita gets one line). Alba is surrounded by idiosyncratic actresses — including Fernanda Romero as the face Sydney sees in the mirror — and she simply can’t compete. Picture The Eye with Parker Posey in the lead and you see the missed opportunities.

Those unfamiliar with Gin Gwai may criticize The Eye’s grand finale, which ups the ante to include exploding vehicles, but the earlier film concluded the same way. In the original, it felt too much as if the Pangs were using the climax as a calling card — “See, we can blow stuff up, too.” Maybe Moreau and Palud — the latest European horror directors to try their luck in Hollywood — intend it that way, too, but the sequence just walks in the Pangs’ footsteps. The spookiest thing about The Eye, which made respectable money on its opening weekend, is that there are two sequels to Gin Gwai (it was also remade before, in India), with a third to come this year. That gives Lionsgate even more material to milk instead of nourishing its own original horror ideas.

Caramel

February 1, 2008

Beirut is a beautiful place, except for the crap that has nothing to do with most of the people who live there and just try to get through the day. So we Americans were told by Anthony Bourdain in his excellent No Reservations episode filmed in Beirut when the 2006 Israeli bombings started, and so we are also told by Caramel, which sketches a country in a sort of blurred limbo between Islamic fundamentalism and a more Westernized, Catholic-inflected lifestyle.

Caramel is candy; it is also used to rip unwanted hair out of female flesh. Pleasure and pain, much like falling in love. The movie, a first feature by director-cowriter-star Nadine Labaki, is a gentle group portrait of Lebanese women dealing with stirrings of the heart. Most of the episodic plot unfolds in and around a beauty salon, an island of femininity in a city still patriarchal. Layale (Labaki) is involved with a married man, whose face we never see. Nisrine (Yasmine al-Masri) is about to be married, though her fiancé doesn’t know he won’t be her first. Jamale (Gisèle Aouad) is a has-been actress trying to get a gig in a soap commercial. Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) is falling for a raven-haired client. Rose (Sihame Haddad) might have something going with a French-speaking gentleman.

The problems are unsurprising — the stuff of soap operas — but what is surprising is Labaki’s refusal to manufacture conflict. Layale meets the wife of her lover, but nothing big happens. Really, nothing big ever happens in the movie; nobody dies in order to pull the group closer together, nobody is disowned, hardly anyone even raises her voice except in celebration. Early on, Nisrine’s fiancé is arrested for mouthing off to a patrolman, but nothing horrible comes of that, either — Youssef (Adel Karam), a policeman nursing a crush on Layale, sees the whole episode for the non-event it is and lets the guy go. Some viewers may be disappointed in the lack of expected narrative beats; others, like me, will find it refreshing. We’re just sitting in on these people’s lives for a while. Their culture, politics and religion set the story apart but remain mere backdrop — the movie is very much set before the 2006 violence. Labaki dedicates Caramel “to my Beirut,” and it’s clear she intends it as a valentine to a beloved place that has long been misrepresented in American headlines.

Quite a bit more than My Big Fat Lebanese Wedding, the film manages to suggest the derangement of people living under a patriarchy — the women who submit to surgery to fake virginity, the men who would like to respect women but haven’t really learned how yet — without being overtly political or even male-bashing. Shot in lush golden browns by Yves Sehnaoui, Caramel is the farthest thing from a grim Middle East tabloid film like The Kite Runner — it respects beauty and the bafflements of love.

Labaki may be the only director-star ever to film a dove pooping on her face, and she generously gives the final shot to a minor character enjoying the freedom of a short new hairdo. As long as she resists Hollywood tropes and continues to tell stories about her Beirut, she’ll be a director to watch.


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