Toronto — Day 1 capsules
THE MAGIC FLUTE (Kenneth Branagh, Britain, 2006, 3)
Ingmar Bergman has nothing to worry about. Just a godawful mess that will satisfy nobody. If you walk in innocent of the original, you won’t be able to make head or tail of it, and singing it in English doesn’t help a whole lot since opera-style singing is hard to follow even in a language you understand. If you already know the original, you’re still limited by (1) it wasn’t the tightest, most-logically-plotted, obscure-symbolism-free opera to begin with; and (2) Branagh kinda sets it in World War I (to the extent that this opera can be said to have a setting at all) and plops a lot of confused and confusing pacifist propaganda onto it. It’s supposed to make it tries to make it Important and Relevant. Instead, it pretty much brings the music down to the level of the New Seekers — “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” Pretty much. The music is too good not to survive this, though. Some record company or studio should sign that guy up.
THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO CINEMA (Sophie Fiennes, Britain, 2006, 7)
The important thing to understand is that this is not a film. It’s a work of film criticism, but as that, it’s very strong and the best possible film of its kind. PERVERT’S GUIDE is only 2 1/2 hours of Freudian philosopher/film critic Slavoj Zizek talking about how films work and how they help construct our sexual and other subjectivities. There’s plenty of well-chosen clips to illustrate his points, but, funny if predictable variations in setting aside, not much more than him talking and showing clips. So obviously PERVERT’S GUIDE is not in the league of either THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS or ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF ANDREI ARSENEVITCH. Neither is it particularly groundbreaking in terms of its ideas per se, and some of them are rather dubious. But Zizek really has star presence and the entertaining “voice” to sell his ideas, at least for the length of the film. He has the fumbling-English Mitteleuropa-sage bit down pat, and his takes on DOGVILLE, PSYCHO and THE CONVERSATION, plus Tarkovsky and Haneke and Fritz Lang made me sit up and take notice (his tastes are practically wired into mine). Hey, if boring European psychobabble can be made this interesting, bring it on.
THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, Germany, 2006, 8 )
Someone on St. Blogs a few weeks ago (I forget who) wanted to know why Hollywood never makes movies about Communist tyranny. I hold no brief for the US industry, but there are such films made in the countries that lived under it. THE LIVES OF OTHERS is a tautly-dramatic and suspenseful film (if not exactly a “thriller”) about surveillance in East Germany — a companion piece to the nostalgia comedy GOODBYE LENIN from a few years ago. Its richly ironic plot tells of how and why a playwright who was the most loyal artist in East Germany was bugged by state security, what happened, how and why he turned against East Germany, and how his Stasi surveiller unwittingly got involved, both for good and for ill. LIVES won a very lengthy standing ovation from the Elgin audience Thursday night, it’s obviously very accessible and conventionally entertaining, and so it’s destined to be one of the major foreign-film releases in the US next year, after having dominated the German Oskars. Unlike a lot of broadly-seen foreign films, this one will deserve the praise. It’s subtly acted in a nicely low-key — Hitchcock noted the gap between what people say and what they mean, and the performances are all at least good in this vein. Because it establishes very quickly the ubiquity of spying and the effectiveness of the East German secret police, everything has a suspenseful aura over it, even the scenes you wouldn’t call “set pieces.” Goes about 3 minutes too long though — everything after a certain newspaper headline is in my opinion redundant.