07 June 2004

Three Movies

Three films I've seen recently have made me pause and consider what I thought of them, because I wasn't able to come to any immediate conclusion except that, to some extent at least, I thought they were interesting.

In the Cut is a mystery/suspense movie by Jane Campion, based on a novel by Susanna Moore. I responded very strongly to the film, finding it mesmerizing, provoking an almost unbearable tension, but I know many people thought it was dull or self-indulgent. The plot is the greatest weakness of the movie -- it's not the least bit original, and the revelation of the killer is far less interesting than the relationships between the characters, the balance of various thematic elements against each other, and the magnificent cinematography -- but though it's disappointing that the basic material is less compelling than a mediocre episode of "Law & Order", the characters and the craft made the flawed plot far less annoying to me than it would have been otherwise. The remarkable thing is that Campion structures her film in such a way as to make us sympathize with Meg Ryan's character almost against our will, and as she moves deeper and deeper toward danger, the result is that an attentive viewer becomes paranoid, because all of a sudden any man she encounters could be a murderer. Trust becomes impossible, and this causes her to hurt the people who deserve her trust and love her, and nearly to lose her life. And yet I, for one, couldn't blame her, because I was even more paranoid than the character. The acting is phenomenal -- Mark Ruffalo's subtle and complex performance deserved an Oscar nomination, because it's a performance of more depth and quiet power than similar ones by people such as Robert DeNiro and Campion's own favorite, Harvey Keitel.

The Triplets of Belleville is a wondrous animated film by Sylvain Chomet. With almost no dialogue, Chomet tells a fairly simple (though bizarre) story and embellishes it with sumptuous, endlessly imaginative animation (primarily 2-D hand-drawn animation, with some 3-D computer effects thrown in when useful). There is so much that is good about this movie that I don't know where to begin, and so I'll just mention it all, doing justice to none: the magnificent details, the simultaneously endearing and annoying characters, the use of Mozart, the characters based on Josephine Baker, Glenn Gould, Django Reinhardt (and probably some others I missed), the perfect mix of styles (everything from Fleischer to Miyazaki). And more. The film creates its own universe and lets us live in it for a while, and I don't think I know of any higher praise.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is good fun. I probably wouldn't have seen it if Chris Columbus were still directing the Potter movies, but choosing Alfonso Cuaron to direct it was such an odd and interesting choice that I couldn't resist. Basically, I agree with Neil Gaiman's judgment: "I kept wishing the plot would stop ticking for a moment and let a bit of film happen. And toward the end I found myself wishing they'd thrown out the CGI monsters and gone for puppetry and people in costumes instead." Yes, indeed. But I thought David Thewliss gave a typically good performance (he's even good in hideously awful movies like Total Eclipse), and though I expected more from Cuaron, at least he's not a let's-put-on-a-blockbuster director like Columbus, who directs less like an artist than a traffic cop. I'm rather tired of the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, so I suppose the fact that the movie held my interest throughout says a lot for it, and, to be honest, I thought it was a markedly better adaptation of its source material than the final Lord of the Rings movie was, with considerably fewer silly or boring parts.

I did find myself imagining what various directors would have done with the film, because I think the book is the most evocative of the four I've read. Imagine what Tim Burton or Terry Gilliam would come up with ... or Jeunet & Caro, or Jan Svankmajer... It would have been too much of a risk for Hollywood to take, though, because many people who worshipped the books only want the films to be slavishly literal adaptations, an attitude that holds the films back from being excellent works of cinema rather than just book reports committed to celluloid. This was the least literally faithful of the Potter films, and so it gave me some hope that in the future a really great movie could be made from one of the books. Certainly, I'll be curious to see how they adapt the fourth book, since it was so long (unnecessarily, I thought, but I've met plenty of kids who thought it was too short, at least after the first time they read it).