Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Day Zero: "Even our adulteries can't compare - yours plays the oboe"

Directed by Santosh Sivan, Before the Rains is a lush melodrama with a hint of Merchant-Ivory. Set in 1930s colonial India, it stars Linus Roache as spice-grower Henry Moores, who's engaged in building an important road and is desperate to finish before Monsoon season begins. He's also engaged in a passionate affair with his young house-keeper, Sanjani (Nandita Das), which he has to hide from the local villagers because of her arranged marriage to the vicious Rajat (Lal Paul). However, Henry's bliss is short-lived, first because his wife Laura (Jennifer Ehle, as lovely as ever) arrives from England with their young son in tow, and secondly because Rajat's discovery of Sanjani's affair puts everyone's lives in danger. Seeking refuge, Sanjani turns to Henry for help, but he's desperate to hide the affair from Laura, so he asks his right-hand man, T.K. (Rahul Bose) to help Sanjani get to safety. However, Sanjani isn't ready to leave without the man she loves... This is the sort of film where one character gives another a gun as a present in the second scene, so you pretty much know where it's going right from the start. Also, given the scandalous subject matter, it's a remarkably chaste affair - sex scenes take place behind rocks, bathtub scenes involve too much foam and even the shootings and beatings occur offscreen. The cast do their best (Bose and Das are particularly good, though Ehle's rather wasted as Laura) but the end result is rather underwhelming and a racier director might have spiced it up a bit. Watchable enough, though and the scenery is fantastic. Three stars.

Time to Die

Polish drama about an old woman and her dog.

Crisply shot in black and white, Time to Die stars Polish screen legend Danuta Szaflarska as 92-year-old Aniela, who lives in a large-but-rickety old house that's far too big for her, with only her faithful dog, Phila (short for Philadelphia) for company. Her good-for-nothing son visits every so often (bringing her overweight and deeply uninterested granddaughter with him) but Daniela correctly senses that he's only waiting for her to die so he can sell the house to the property developer next door. However, when her son decides to go behind her back and make a deal with the neighbour anyway, Aniela decides that she's not going to go down without a fight. My knowledge of Polish (or, more accurately, Polish swearing) was good enough for me to realise that Aniela's actually a lot more abrasive and coarse than the rather tame subtitles suggest (and, while we're at it, WHY do subtitlers still persist in using white subtitles on white backgrounds?), so this was robbed of some of its impact but it was still enjoyable, if a little slow. Szaflarska is excellent throughout (the constant twinkle in her eye leaves you in no doubt as to whether or not she's entirely compos mentis) but the film really belongs to the dog, who gives the best canine performance of the year and would be a shoo-in for the Canine D'Or at Cannes (a real award). In fact, during the film's slower moments, it's fun to pretend that the film is actually all about Phila and her daily adventures as she opens doors, answers the phone, chases off property developers, cracks and eats walnuts and delivers note-perfect comedy reactions on demand. There are some other good scenes too (Aniela enjoying a thunderstorm, for example, or her interaction with a young “rascal” nick-named Dostoyevsky) but this is worth seeing for the dog alone. Three stars.


Elegy

Classy drama based on a novel by Philip Roth, starring Ben Kingsley as a lecturer who falls head-over-heels for one of his grad students (Penelope Cruz).

What is it with Ben Kingsley lately? How come he's suddenly getting the sort of onscreen relationships you usually see in Woody Allen movies? In the last few months he's bedded (onscreen, I hasten to add) Tea Leoni (in You Kill Me), Mary-Kate Olsen (in The Wackness) and Famke Janssen (also in The Wackness) and now there's a whole movie about his relationship with Penelope Cruz? Kingsley must have the best agent in the world. Either that or compromising photographs of every casting director in Hollywood. Anyway, I digress. I freely admit that Kingsley's not my favourite actor but his two recent performances (in The Wackness and Elegy) have brought me round somewhat. Here he plays David Kepesh, an author and college professor who walked out on his wife and child many years ago, something his “father-hating son” (Peter Sarsgaard) still hasn't forgiven him for. Since then, the closest thing David has to a meaningful relationship is his monthly hook-up with self-made businesswoman Caroline (Patricia Clarkson), an arrangement that seems to suit them both perfectly. However, when David falls head-over-heels for one of his students (Penelope Cruz, looking fabulous) and begins a relationship with her, his jealousy threatens to destroy everything because he's convinced she'll eventually leave him for a younger man. Given a set-up like that, it should surprise precisely no-one that all this is adapted from a novel by Philip Roth. Kingsley and Cruz are both excellent and I have to begrudgingly admit that there is decent chemistry between them, even though it was all I could do not to shout “GET YOUR HANDS OFF OF HER, KINGSLEY!” during Penelope's nude scenes. However, the film is stolen by a superb supporting performance from Dennis Hopper as David's best friend and confidante, a -wait for it- Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet (stop laughing at the back there) who offers terrible relationship advice and still has affairs, even though he's married to DEBBIE FREAKING HARRY. Hopper's terrific though – he lights up every scene he's in, plus, I won't forget the image of him feeding a depressed Kingsley with the old “Here comes the choo-choo train” routine in a hurry. I hadn't checked the director before the film started (it's one of those 'all the credits are at the end' jobs) but it didn't surprise me at all to discover that it was directed by Spanish director Isabel Coixet, whose last film I really enjoyed. She should probably ditch her Woody Allen obsession though – a shot of Kingsley and Cruz on the beach in long-shot, seen through a gap in a fence is directly stolen from either, September, Another Woman or Interiors (one of Allen's really boring films, anyway). All in all, this is a classy, beautifully photographed and superbly acted drama, though it's not quite as emotionally engaging as it ought to be and it could have used a) a bit more humour and b) less voiceover. Three stars.

Helen

Low-key drama about a young woman who begins to identify with a murdered girl after standing in for her during a police reconstruction for TV.

I'd heard good things about this, but, to be honest, I was a little underwhelmed (which, now that I think about it, has been the case all day – I'm struggling to pick a Film of the Day from this lot, so I think I'll skip it). Anyway, I liked the premise a lot: when local teenager Joy disappears and is presumed murdered, loner Helen (Annie Townsend) agrees to play her in a police reconstruction for TV. As she takes to wearing the Joy's distinctive yellow leather jacket (how she gets to keep it is never explained), she becomes increasingly obsessed with the dead girl, befriending her parents and even getting Joy's ex-boyfriend to deflower her. Slowly, it becomes clear that Helen knows nothing about her own background – she's grown up in care and her case file was sealed until she turned 18 – and is filling in her own gaps with details from Joy's life. There's a superb central idea here, but the film ends just as it's getting interesting. Similarly, Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor's joint directorial style is extremely distancing (it reminded me of The Last Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, only not as horrible), with an ever-present discordant soundtrack and long takes and close-ups of nothing happening. It also doesn't help that all the dialogue in the film is delivered in the same measured, precise and oddly patronising tone: for example, the first scene involving speech is when a detective is asking Joy's parents to identify her things and speaking to them slowly and deliberately because they're in shock...and then everyone else in the film speaks the same way. There are also odd moments where side characters (police officers, a drama teacher) deliver inappropriate motivational speeches that don't quite work. I was also confused by the setting, as characters either spoke with Irish accents, Newcastle accents, Birmingham accents or Liverpool accents - it turned out that the film had been funded jointly by film boards in all four places, so that cleared that up, but it detracted from the film. That said, Helen grew on me towards the end and I really liked Annie Townsend's performance, even if she does bear an unfortunate resemblance to Lou Taylor Pucci. There were also several striking images, such as an early shot of a line of police combing the forest and a follow-up shot from behind with their emblazoned jackets reading “POLICE POLICE POLICE POLICE POLICE POLICE”. I liked the final line a lot too. Three stars.

1 comment:

Ed and Paul said...

We just stumbled across your blog while looking for more info on this film, which we saw this afternoon as part of the Sydney Film Festival! Strange to think that it's playing at another festival on the other side of the world.

We agree with most of what you say (especially about the strange motivational speeches and monotone delivery) but I think, overall, we were less forgiving. Two stars from us, and we thought we were being generous! Although, we were tempted to give it a bonus star just for the laughs we got from seeing a grown man burst into tears over a mathematical formula - _what_ was that scene about?!

We'll look around your blog to see what your picks are from the Edinburgh festival. Our highlight in Sydney so far has been Guy Maddin's 'My Winnepeg'.