Thursday, September 13, 2007

Capsule Catch-up

Across the Universe (Julie Taymour) 59 [Julie Taymor, with the full catalog of The Beatles at her disposal, churns out a somewhat disappointing and pedestrian musical. It's not the cliches of the story or the Disneyfication of the '60s that rankles here so much as it's the general feeling of missed opportunity. The songs she has are some of the most tuneful and lyrically vivid in existence, yet the onscreen action that accompanies them is more often than not ridiculously literal and straightforward. It thankfully doesn't become an exercise in kitsch at any point, and the film is not without its strengths, but it rarely builds in power. The two leads (Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess) are ridiculously charismatic, and one or two moments, such as the "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" number (here a poignant, casually choreographed ode to lesbian longing) hint at the potential. All in all, it's a good deal better than the recent '60s-era musicals Hairspray and Dreamgirls, but I am fairly positive that few will fondly remember it once Todd Haynes' Dylan extravaganza I'm Not There hits.]

Jellyfish (Shira Geffen / Etgar Keret) 51 [This routine multi-character Israeli drama has a lighter, more comic touch than ensemble pieces usually do. That helps, as the genre fails more often than not, but also proves a mild hindrance, since the overall lack of ambition leaves things feeling slight. Ghosts of Israel's past flit by (the Holocaust and Syria are name checked), but they are given equal weight as minor personal dramas such as an adult's memory of a parent's white lie about the ice cream man. Keeping in tone with the rest of the film, the wounded souls among the cast don't find total emotional reconciliation so much as they have their awareness about perspectives other than their own raised at the climax.]

The Band's Visit (Eran Kolirin) 60 [This low-key comedy tracks an Egyptian Police band that gets waylaid on their way to a concert in Israel. It finds a peculiar tone that is, as one actor says near the end, "neither happy nor sad". Charmingly charting the loneliness both of the displaced Egyptians and the Israelis who reluctantly host them for a night, Kolirin evades mawkishness at most every step, largely thanks to two solid lead performances courtesy of Ronit Elkabetz & Sasson Gabai. By turns funny, poignant and clever, it is a clear crowd-pleaser.]

Dr. Plonk (Rolf de Heer) 62 [One could complain that the stunts here aren't as athletically impressive as in some silent comedy classics, just as one could rightly gripe that the Plonk persona lacks the rich pathos of, say, Keaton. That would be churlish, though, since this is so much better, both in spirit and execution than anyone had any right to suspect. It is probably the best film I've seen from director Rolf de Heer, which isn't necessarily saying a lot, but it does confirm my suspicions that he might not be more than a competent technician -- a recycler of other director's better ideas. Here the sensibility, the jokes, and the music all lifted part and parcel from great films of the past, much to the overall success of this attempt.]

Happy New Life (Arpad Bogdan) 47 [The grade, a 47, is actually kind of harsh, even though this thing has obvious weaknesses. It's apparent from the start that Bogdan is a gifted visual stylist, using his digital camerawork to play with light and nightscapes in fresh new was. The circular narrative is the source of most of the problems. Bogdan's style, promising as it might be, is not enough to fill the gaping hole where the content should be. The premise, in which an orphan begins a search for identity, for which no answers might exist, is good, but it's scarcely developed beyond that point. I'll definitely check out the director's next film, but this reeks of unfulfilled promise.]

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