Saturday, February 14, 2009

Short Takes: Gomorrah, Coraline, Let the Right One In, Serbis, Taken

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This is my first fairly quiet weekend in quite a while---at least after excursions to New York in the past few weekends either eating dinner with friends, catching art-house flicks (like Film Forum's recent Jeanne Dielman revival) and even ice skating for the first time ever, at the South Street Seaport. The relative dullness of this weekend is especially exacerbated by the fact that I don't have a significant other with which to celebrate Valentine's Day. Next weekend---Oscar weekend---will hopefully provide more fireworks.

So, to keep myself occupied, perhaps a little catch-up is in order as far as some of the recent films I've seen are concerned.


First up: Gomorrah. Actually, I can be curt with this one, because I pretty much lay out my detailed thoughts on Matteo Garrone's highly praised crime saga in my latest piece of writing, this one for The House Next Door (my first in a few months for the site, actually). The short version: it's a film I admire a great deal, especially as a piece of complex storytelling, but I find it difficult to get too excited about it; it's a rather dry, detached film that feels made more out of duty than passion. Frankly, I found the whole thing just a tad boring. That's not much of an intellectual reaction, I realize...but I dunno: its emotional distance just seems self-defeating to me. It left me neither angry nor enlightened, just indifferent.


I feel a lot more comfortable singing the praises of Henry Selick's splendid new foray into stop-motion animation, Coraline, which is absolutely bursting with passion for creepy imagery and childlike wonder.

Based on a slim novel by Neil Gaiman, Selick's film uses its plot---in which the title character stumbles upon an imaginary universe that initially provides a welcome respite from the drudgery of her home life, before it turns into a nightmare that intrudes upon that reality---basically as a clothesline to hang wonderfully dreamlike images together. Dancing mice, giant grasshoppers, a talking cat, dolls with buttons for eyes brought to life, eccentric neighbors: all of these, and plenty more, can be found throughout Coraline, but the crucial thing here is that all of these lovely images---enhanced, for once, by 3-D---are bound together by Selick's own tough-minded yet wholly empathetic take on childhood dreams and desires. Coraline herself is no cliched cute tyke; she's a restless, sometimes irritable, always imaginative child who struggles to relieve her boredom after moving to a new home in Oregon. She makes for quite a believably human heroine, and the movie itself is infused with a warmth that beautifully meshes with some of Selick's wilder flights of animated visual fancy. Everything here is surrealistically exaggerated---even the physiques of the characters themselves, with Coraline perhaps fittingly having the widest-size head of all of the characters---and yet grounded in some kind of emotional reality. In its own way, it's quite enchanting.


Enchanting in a wholly different way is last year's celebrated Swedish horror import Let the Right One In, which I finally got around to checking out a couple of days ago. I now regret missing it before 2008 was out. Atmospheric in a primeval children's-storybook way, it is also startlingly, uncompromisingly dark, both visually and thematically.

Tomas Alfredson's film also features children at its center: a young boy, Oskar, who is constantly picked on at school, and the eccentric young girl next door, Eli, he turns to for comfort. The catch: she's a vampire, who obviously needs the thirst of human blood to sustain herself. The bigger catch: she begins to feel for the boy, and the feelings they both try to dance around eventually lead to serious consequences, both for themselves and for people who get tangled in their web of young love and unwitting destruction.

Let the Right One In is a dazzling aesthetic object, to be sure, but it also works as an emotionally complex drama that hauntingly dramatizes both the life-or-death scale of the intimate feelings these two young kids have toward each other, and the broader world which experiences the fatal consequences of their personal drama. Alfredson, to wit, manages a tricky mixture of both engagement and distance, sometimes expressing the tortured emotions of the characters with dramatic music cues and observant close-ups, but other times going for extra-wide shots that put their passion in its proper and sometimes horrifying perspective. Boys will certainly be boys---but these kids not only both have a potential for violence, but they bring forth violence outside of their world that cannot be controlled. By the end, the boy makes a decision that might feel right for him and Eli---he's a kid, what does he know about adult love and friendship?---but which feels tragically wrong when you step outside of their emotions and consider its worldly implications. It's a horror movie, all right, but not about vampires; if anything, it's a horror film about adolescents being adolescents, young kids who believe their troubles really are the ends of their respective worlds---because, being the boys that they are, they just don't know any better.


Two more, one worth seeing and one worth skipping. The one worth seeing is Serbis, Brillante Mendoza's lively dip into the squalid milieu of a family-owned porn theater in the Philippines. A film that edges perilously close to exploitation and yet somehow stays on the right side of the fence, Serbis manages to find a surprising amount of humanity and life amidst the sucking and fucking, focusing as it does on the Pineda clan, which has owned the once prestigious theater for years, and which is now struggling to keep both family relations and the theater itself afloat. Some have read into the film a critique of both Philippine capitalism and even Philippine cinema into its porn-theater setting. There's probably something to that; me, I'm more fascinated by the ways Mendoza manages to immerse us in this particular environment---when some of the central family members converse with the din of the city outside the open window, for instance, Mendoza allows the conversation to naturally blend in with the outside noise, not always bothering to make it intelligible, giving such scenes a convincing documentary feel---and by the film's overall mix of raunch and warmth. Supposedly the R-rated theatrical version I saw was cut down from a longer, more sexually explicit version that was shown, to wildly mixed reviews, at Cannes last year; I look forward to hopefully seeing the cut footage, but I can nevertheless wholeheartedly recommend the rated version for its modest but impressive and oddly affecting achievements.

The less impressive achievement is Taken, of which I have little to say except that the spectacle of seeing the often stolid Liam Neeson kicking righteous ass wasn't quite as gleefully entertaining as I was hoping it would be. Some of the ass-kicking is actually quite ugly and sordid, especially when Neeson---who is desperately trying to get back his daughter, who was abducted by human traffickers in France---tortures a baddie, with Jack Bauer-like grimness, with electricity. He may be bad-ass, but he's also just plain bad---something Pierre Morel, Luc Besson and co. don't seem all that interested in acknowledging, probably because for them it's all about empty-headed thrills. Even TV's 24, which is as much of a right-wing fantasy as Taken is, has made gestures over the years toward acknowledging the moral cost of torture on the torturers, even if the ends did justify the means. Still, for what it's worth, Neeson actually is quite good in this---livelier than he usually is as an actor, in fact. Maybe a little bit of righteous ass-kicking can be good for an actor's system; look at Kiefer Sutherland (though let's try to forget about his recent jail stint).

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