Miral (Julian Schnabel)
Julian Schanbel’s Miral covers the period from the establishment of Israel up through 1994, but it’s less a historical account of Palestinian oppression in Israel than the tale of several Palestinian women and their relationship to that state of affairs. There is some considerable tension here between the script, which is didactic and blunt, and Schnabel’s direction, which always seems to be looking at the fringes for something of interest within this conventional framework. Extreme close-ups, color filters, Vaseline on the lens, and extensive handheld camerawork give the impression that the sensual backdrop is more interesting to the director than history or the people portrayed. Indeed, the stories of these women provide a mixed bag of material. Things start strongly with the account of a woman’s establishment of an orphanage. This plotline could have easily sustained the film, especially since Hiam Abbas is quite good in the role. Instead, Miral drifts toward the stories of other repressed women, until it finally settles on the titular girl (Freida Pinto), who is supposed to serve as some sort of hope for the future of the Palestinian state. That message becomes obscured, though, as the final segment is easily the film’s weakest. Abbas, so effective early on, becomes stranded in a tiny role and a ridiculous wig. Miral herself is strident (“You don’t understand anything because you’ve been hiding in the mosque your whole life,” she tells her father) and politically naïve. Pinto adds little to the character that exists on the page, making the future of Palestine seem quite vapid indeed. Still, Miral is better than its already damaged reputation would suggest. There are well-played scenes here, such as the one in which a woman exaggerates her Arabness to scare off an Israeli girlfriend, that work quite well, regardless of political import. Though the film is unlikely to change hearts and minds about the issue of Palestine, it is an effective, large-scale drama.
Submarine (Richard Ayoade)
News came this week that The Weinstein Company picked up Submarine, Richard Ayoade’s debut feature. The decision to acquire this low-key Welsh comedy seems somewhat odd, as the American indie market is flooded with a million films along this line, many of them better. When we have superior films like Rushmore, there’s no need to import mediocrities like this.
In any case, Submarine tells the coming of age story of one Oliver Tate, a young intellectual who is about to discover his first love. The movie adopts a wry, somewhat distanced tone, but this is entirely familiar stuff, depicting issues such as his parent’s possible infidelity, his virginity anxiety, his mistreatment of an outcast girl, and a cancer scare. The best material here, by far, involves his well-mannered parents, played by Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins. The two adopt comic personas that are based on extreme rationality and parental understanding. Their frankness becomes hilarious, providing the majority of Submarine’s laughs. As for, Craig Roberts, the young actor playing Oliver, his greatest asset seems to be his vacant stare, which is less damning than it sounds, given that the title refers to the feeling of being underwater brought about by depression. Ayoade’s direction is decent, with a reasonable visual sensibility, but he indulges in too many overlong musical montages, ending every chapter of this three-part film with a whimper.
Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell)
I suspect that a few people might write John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole off as clichéd claptrap, but I was completely disarmed and moved by its unerring ability to treat the aftermath of the death of a child with fresh eyes. Much has been made of the fact that this is a change of pace for director Mitchell (he’s previously directed Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus), but Rabbit Hole is far more a screenwriter’s or an actors’ movie than a showcase for its director or his personality. That’s more than fine in this case, as both the screenplay, based on a Pulitzer-winning stage play, and the performances are top-notch.
With affecting clarity and surprising humor, Rabbit Hole examines the difficult fact that we all have to mourn in our own ways, at our own pace. Set eight months after a couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) have lost their only child in a car accident, the film sees the two struggling to mourn in a way that provides them comfort. Much is made here of the idea that there is a socially acceptable way of acting after a tragedy, and many of Rabbit Hole’s best scenes involve quiet, unstated judgments of others’ coping mechanisms. These pressures are palpable, thanks to Kidman’s performance, which at times works through similar terrain as There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview. Social circumstances require the repression of emotions, and much of the film is spent waiting for said emotions to explode. It’s a credit to Rabbit Hole’s intelligent script that that explosion comes without upsetting the delicate balance of sadness, humor, and healing that it works toward the whole time. A major achievement in a minor key.
The Housemaid (Im Sang-soo)
This remake of a Korean film classic is glossier than the ‘60s original. In it, Eun-Yi, a wealthy household’s new maid, enters a realm of emotional manipulation and upstairs/downstairs class struggles. Im’s approach is far kinkier than expected. There are uncomfortable sexual situations galore, each of them a metaphorical struggle for power. The movie’s politics are entirely blunt, with the rich characters all too willing to resort to murder if throwing cash at a problem doesn’t work, but they result in a film that carries a wicked spirit. It’s dumb, but it’s fun, and it builds toward a truly jaw-dropping finale. Not the smartest movie I’ve seen at the festival to be sure, but one of the boldest.
Heartbeats (Xavier Dolan)
Whereas I Killed My Mother was surprising because it came from a director of Dolan’s age, Heartbeats is precisely the sort of thing that you would expect from a 21-year-old director. What becomes obvious, in retrospect, is how much Anne Dorval brought to the sensibility of Dolan’s debut film (it certainly fell apart once she left the screen). She shows up here, in a cameo, and it’s the best scene in the movie, by far. The rest of it is shallow stuff, obsessed with questioning the existence of bisexuality, the allure of an unrequited romance, and the way that love makes us abandon other concerns. Ideas are tossed about, but there’s no vision. Slow-motion musical montages don’t advance the mood or narrative, faux-documentary interview sequences end up trumping the main story. Everything seems self-dramatizing and overly aestheticized instead of honest. It’s overextended for what it is, and the three leads all seem like weak performers. Only the wit of the final scene caught me off-guard.
Leap Year (Michael Rowe)
A master-slave relationship develops over the course of a month, forcing us to gradually question who’s controlling who in Michael Rowe’s debut feature. Things begin cryptically here, with no clear motivation given for single-woman Laura’s odd, promiscuous behavior. As we watch her tick the days off her calendar, building to an ominously colored February 29th, though, her actions shift into focus, turning the movie into a sub-Repulsion study in sadness brought upon by abuse. The film is psychologically unconvincing. Monica del Carmen, who plays Laura, is whatever the script calls for in a given scene, with little connective tissue from one vignette to the next. We’re supposed to feel bad for a woman who can be so businesslike or empathetic one moment and so childlike and victimized the next, but there’s nothing bridging the two personalities. Much of this is due to Rowe’s formal approach, which tends to use one shot per scene. That directorial choice would be more acceptable if it were more consistent, but we get odd decisions like the one to open the film outside of the apartment, in a supermarket. A decent first feature, but I suspect that Rowe will have better luck in, say, another four years.
Insidious (James Wan)
This haunted house movie is definite hackwork (from the director of Saw), but it has a clear eye on entertaining the audience, which makes much of its ineptitude forgivable. With a plot that shamelessly rips off the brilliant Poltergest (Wan claims homage), much of the work has been done for them. The scares here begin to build almost immediately, whether a scene is set in day or night. Better yet, they build off one another, with most scenes offering more than one opportunity for the audience to jump in fright. Every cliché from every haunted house movie resurfaces here. Barbara Hershey, from The Entity, even turns up in a small role. This is fairly straight-faced, totally unambitious stuff that knows what it wants to be. It only really falters in its disappointing last act, in which a trip to the spirit realm feels more like a trip to a wax museum. Still, good fun.