Films seen last weekend (mostly mediocre)
THE ILLUSIONIST (Neil Burger, USA, 2006, 5)
I actually went to this movie by mistake, thinking it was the latest movie by Christopher Nolan (of MEMENTO fame), a fall 2006 release about a turn-of-the-century magician whose tricks get too real for comfort. Once seated, I saw the trailer for the movie I was expecting to see. wtf? Oh, well. This movie’s actually pretty good — and it starts off really strong, with a kind of fairy-tale childhood flashback (I enjoyed the slight-but-unobtrusive gauze around the edge of the frame). Paul Giamatti and Ed Norton are good as expected, both convincing as two different men — Norton as the magician Weisenheimer both creates a man in love and a man obsessed, and Giamatti as the police inspector handles with aplomb his mix of emperor’s loyal servant and man fascinated by the “how” matters of a magic act. (The film thankfully never explains them.) But one or two points shaven off for an ending conceptually identical to the end of this movie (follow link only if you’ve seen ILLUSIONIST or want it spoiled). It goes by way too fast, particularly for something that recodes the whole movie, and, from what I could tell of it, it made no sense and defanged the emotions the film was tweaking anyway. Wow, movies are an illusion, a trick. Who knew?
THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 1996, 6)
LIVE FLESH (Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 1998, 5)
Obviously, watching the Lumiere Brothers at the factory as a little boy and then going through film history chronologcially is impossible. But my reaction to these two movies are case studies on just how much watching films out of sequence colors our opinions of them. I saw FLOWER and FLESH back-to-back Sunday night at the AFI Retro, thus catching up with two of the three post-PEPI, LUCI, BOM … Pedro films I had missed. But I found these, seen out of order, as mildly-interesting rough drafts, with raw material and hints at a new direction that would reach full flower in the “mature style” of ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER and TALK TO HER (which I saw contemporanously in 1999 and 2002 and liked a lot). However, when Mike saw MOTHER back in ’99, he complained that it retread ideas from FLOWER. And his review of FLOWER in ’96 called it a welcome turn to a somewhat more serious style (for the record, he didn’t like FLESH much).
As it is, FLOWER seems like Pedro is moving toward using his bright candy-colored palette to make women’s melodrama and away from the sort of chaotic-erotic Preston Sturges braided-plot farces he had been making. But he’s stuck between the two. The mother-daughter “fussing” between Almodovar vets Rossy DePalma and Chus Lampreave, admittedly quite funny, would have felt at home in those pictures; here, it just seems out of place. Though, to not-coin a phrase, Marisa Paredes is — no other word for it — fabulous (she looks like a cross between recent Lauren Bacall and Colleen Dewhurst) in the central role of a closeted romance-novel writer.
With FLESH, the problem is a bit more fundamental than being an enjoyable film that doesn’t quite “jell.” It just feels like a sour raspberry. It’s a much darker film than anything Pedro had (or has) ever made. But the presence of an obsessive romantic, paired couples, an accidental crippling and the resulting nonconsummation (though Javier Bardem creates a real person, not a stunt role). It all made FLESH feel like a rough draft for TALK TO HER. But in this movie, “Benigno” the obsessive romantic loser (here named “Victor”) not only gets the girl, but gets rid of a rival whom we have no good reason to despise. Ick. Victor also lacks Benigno’s essential sweetness. Also, the intro and coda were utterly superfluous, other than giving the appearance of narrative rhyme and an excuse for Penelope Cruz to play a childbirth scene (the significance of Victor being born on the night he was completely escaped me, unless it really is as schematic and obvious as Pedro made it seem)
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