Left-Overture: Part 1

[27 December 2007]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

No critic can see every movie in a single year. There are only 365 days from 1 January to 31 December (366 with that added leap), and even if you saw two movies a day, you’d barely get through the entire 2007 release calendar. Someone with much more time on their hands calculated that over 750 films were offered over the last 52 weeks - nearly 15 per 7 day cycle. That includes direct to DVD entries, long shelved titles finally seeing a perfunctory distribution, and standard Cineplex offerings. Toss in a few ‘yet to find a release’ efforts and those given a mere limited showcase for award consideration and you can see how the numbers add up. SE&L struggled to see 125 films theatrically this year - that’s just over 10 a month. When you add in digital releases and other options (pay per view), the number moves closer to 250.

Still, we didn’t see everything - and as a result, we didn’t get a chance to review everything. Yet over the next five Fridays (with the occasional break for a noteworthy new 2008 film), we will try and play catch-up. These left-overtures, made to guarantee a more informed, inclusive assessment of 2007 will cover heretofore unknown documentaries, several celebrated movies that simply slipped through the cracks, and more than a few unknown quantities. First up, however, are four highly anticipated and high profile releases. Each one stands as a significant part of the current cinematic calendar, and no overview of the year in film would be complete without at least a marginal discussion. Granted, a few of the remaining major titles will get the full review treatment (There Will Be Blood, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), but this section hopes to address the more glaring aesthetic gaps quickly and efficiently. It all begins with:

Once [rating: 8]
Once is a nearly flawless little film - emphasis on the word ‘little’. It’s not out to tell a grandiose tale of unrequited love or star-crossed passion. Instead, it lets lonely people - in this case, a struggling street musician and an earnest immigrant from the Czech Republic - discover each other, connect, and then slowly drift apart. It uses songs to tell of their growing affection and respect, and the music also fills in the blanks regarding emotional context and personal angst. There is a real familial texture to the film - writer/director John Carney was in a band with lead actor/featured busker Glen Hansard, and the lead collaborated with actress Markéta Irglová on several of the key numbers. Performed live, with as much raw power and synergy as possible within a very low budget scheme, what we wind up with is an epic told in incomplete lyric lines, a classic fable forged out of slowly strummed guitar, lilting piano, and strained, struggling voices.

Both Hansard and Irglová deserve a lot of credit for how open and honest they are, artistically speaking. Music is a tough undercurrent in any film, its sonic significance meaning the world to some, a cloying, clumsy conceit to others. Here, Carney lets it do most of the heavy lifting, leaving his actors time to bring the nuances of the narrative to life. There are dozens of memorable scenes here - Hansard playing his songs (for the first time, supposedly) to his dad, the hastily cobbled together band impressing a hardened studio exec. - but it’s the morbid, moving tunes scattered throughout that leave the biggest impression. If you’re hoping for overblown romance set inside an equally grandiose or glamorous setting, Once will fail to deliver (Ireland is very cold and claustrophobic here). Love is not the main driving force between these two empty souls. As a matter of fact, both believe they can overcome the sentiment’s inherent limits and rediscover (or restart) it’s fire. No, what this film wants to champion is the collaboration in creativity, and how substantial (and superficial) it can be. For Once, it’s wonderful.

The Kite Runner [rating: 6]
It would take a viewer with the aesthetic skills of an Olympian to overcome the horrendous hurdles placed in entertainment’s way by this well-meaning but misguided adaptation of the famed bestseller. First and foremost, the story is full of purposeful convolutions. Events happen without rhyme, reason or clear set-up, simply stated for automatic acceptance and rote response. Characters aren’t dimensional - they’re mechanical, purposely created to fit certain narrative demands and manipulative paradigms. Our lead is a coward - and never changes from youth to adulthood. And child rape and sexual abuse are the poisonous plotpoints du jour. While many who love Khaled Hosseini’s novel will be happy with the adaptation (many of the main beats have been kept almost intact), fans unfamiliar with the tale of two boys - well off Amir and servant boy Hassan - living life in a pre-Soviet/Taliban Afghanistan will wonder why everything has to be so cruel. Seeing older kids bully younger ones is standard schoolyard shtick. Letting those threats end up in sodomy and defilement seems outrageous, and without proper dramatic foundation.

The Kite Runner is indeed a film dense with cultural disconnect. Perhaps if filmmaker Marc Forster had abandoned the books manipulative material and dealt with the elements of the story that were really interesting (what happened to the young victim during the reign of the Soviets and the rise of Islamic extremism) instead of focusing on the mopey, depressed, guilt ridded Amir, we’d feel more engaged. The featured transition from whiny kid to dour adult is neither compelling nor credible. Even when given the chance to fight for what he wants toward the end of the story, he lets another little boy do the defending. While the kite tournament material is intriguing (even with all the obvious CGI sophistication) and the history harrowing, Forster can’t find a way to make the many divergent threads work in complete consort. The end result feels incomplete, missing important moments and a real message. While it’s wonderful to see the Middle East painted in less than jingoistic images, the parts don’t add up to a substantial sum. This is one Runner that stumbles before hitting the finish line.

Atonement [rating: 8]
For those of you who miss the bodice ripping regality of a good old fashioned period piece weeper, Atonement will fulfill your Merchant/Ivory five hankies hankering quite nicely. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s beloved novel, and dealing with a love that transcends Earthly trappings (like class, law, and war), we witness the story of destined lovers James McAvoy (as Robbie Turner, the educated servant’s son) and Keira Knightley (as upper crust babe Cecilia Tallis). Skittering around the fringes is jealous tween Briony, longing for the much older man she can’t have and jealous of a sister whose much more refined and beautiful than she. During a dinner party, the child witnesses something that sets her off. One false accusation later and Robbie is in jail, Cecilia has disowned her family, and Hitler is invading France. The film then fast forwards to a world ravaged by conflict as the couple attempts to get back together (he’s a soldier, she’s a nurse). Along the way we get reminders, both subtle and starkly repugnant, that nothing in a time of international crisis ends up sunshine and secret rendezvous by the sea.

If there is one glaring flaw in this otherwise faultless film, it’s the character of Briony. She’s a monster, more brazen Bad Seed in her purposeful destruction than scared, green-eyed innocent. We watch her, soulless sense of entitlement driving her to acts of unconscionable cruelty, and wonder if she’ll ever be redeemed (or as the title suggests, held accountable for her numerous sins). The answer, sadly, is no. Even when Vanessa Redgrave shows up two hours later to give the girl an older, wiser veneer, we still see someone who barely comprehends how horrendous their actions really were. Luckily, Pride and Prejudice director Joe Wright distracts us with lots of amazing cinematic statements. There’s an incredible tracking shot that follows Robbie and his fellow soldiers through a Hellish maze of military mayhem along a French coastline, and the final images of our long suffering lovers are simply stunning. Yet one can’t help but feel the impenetrable pall cast by Briony over the entire affair. It’s a necessary contrivance to keep the plot moving (and the tragedy fertile), but without a sense of justice, Atonement just doesn’t pay its penance. It turns a potentially magnificent movie into something that’s merely good.

Juno [rating: 8]
Juno is a snarky afterschool special for the Pinkberry crowd. It’s Knocked Up for the non-Britney brigade. It’s a movie with its own built in sense of Mystery Science Theater 3000 self-referential satire and one of the brightest humoresques in a genre stumbling for a rebirth. Some may see it as the nu-millennial notion of irony as genuine wit taken to ungodly extremes, and others will read the name “Diablo Cody” on the credits (born Brook Busey, she’s the screenwriter swimming in all the Tinsel Town juice right now) and wince at the proto-porn moniker. Yet as with any fairytale, no matter how supposedly nascent, you have to take the flights of fancy with the familiar. After all, this is the story of a teenage gal (the title trooper, played to perfection by Ellen Page) getting pregnant, and no one really having a conniption as a result - clearly a work of fabulist fiction. Deciding against abortion and going for the other “A” word (adoption), our hyper-spunky heroine looks for the perfect parents. Thus begins the film’s biggest paradigm: who makes the best parent - the cool guy who loves alternative rock and exploitation gore films, or the stuck up career woman who emotionally understands the burden of a baby. Tough call.

Yet thanks to Cody’s quirky dialogue, driven by one too many games of Trivial Pursuit and a couple of correspondence courses from the Quentin Tarantino School of Slam Speak, and Page’s flawless manipulation of said mouthfuls, we sail along on rays of Kevin Smithey sunbeams. Director Jason Reitman doesn’t let his outward love of Wes Anderson’s static tableaus undermine the mirth. Instead, his is a cinematic comic timing practically bred into his DNA (his Dad is Stripes/Ghostbusters’ Ivan). With equally engaging work from an all star cast - JK Simmons, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Allison Janney - and a story which sells none of its problematic potential short, we wind up with something that’s smart, sassy, a tad too big for its broadminded britches, and a clear companion piece to the year’s other kings of much cruder comedy. In a world where every underage choice gets its own issue oriented movie of the week on Lifetime, Oxygen, or a combination of the two, Juno’s jaded joking is a breath of really fresh air. It stands as one of 2007’s brightest, best - and frequently, most baffling.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/left-overture-part-1/