Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Once (2007)

Folks say that the Irish respect feeling more than thinking, that they are known for leading with their hearts. Watching the charming Irish film “Once” made me think there may be something to that. The songs of love and heartbreak in this film are full of complex emotion, but they never feel overly sentimental because the emotions flow so naturally from these characters.

“Once” is the story of a couple of unnamed musicians: an Irish lad (Glen Hansard) and an immigrant lass (Marketa Irglova) from some Eastern European country. The girl is impressed by the guy’s sidewalk guitar performances and plays piano for him at the music shop where she gets to play during lunchtime every day. Rather than hopping straight into bed as you might expect, they channel their chemistry to write songs together. These haunting ballads of longing and loss help them each heal their own broken heart. The songs were written by the two actors Hansard and Irglova, and one of them (“Falling Slowly”) won the Oscar for Best Original Song in a Movie. Not bad.

“Once” is not a strict musical because the actors do talk in between songs, but a lot of the story is in the music. Hansard sings about how his girlfriend’s cheating causes him to look back on all their times together with a more cynical eye, which leaves him grieving not only her loss but the loss of those good memories. Irglova sings one about how marrying and having a child young left her feeling lonely in a marriage to a man who didn’t seem to understand her. Normally this kind of emotional content would have me snoozing, but something about these songs made me care.

Audiences weaned on pop princesses and movies where the guy is guaranteed to get the girl may find “Once” hard to get into. For anyone who enjoys subtlety in music and film, this movie is a real treat.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Namesake (2006)

Quick, name a famous actor from India. Even one of Indian descent. Still thinking? Me too. My guess is that that is why Mira Nair recruited Kal Penn (Kumar from “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle”) to star in the screen incarnation of the book, “The Namesake.” Maybe star isn’t the right word; sulk is more like it. Penn may have lent this film the benefit of a semi-recognizable lead, but his wooden-Indian performance sucks the life out of the story. That leaves Indian actors Irfan Khan and Tabu to do the actual acting. They do so with the grace of true professionals, but even their nuanced performances can’t justify this drag of a film.

It won’t take long to outline the plot of “The Namesake,” since there is almost no story here at all. The film follows the lives of Ashoke (Irfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) Ganguli, a couple of Bengali Indians who immigrate to New York. They have a couple of kids, buy a house in the suburbs, and struggle with being outsiders in America and missing their families in India. Their kids Gogol (Kal Penn) and Sonia (Sahira Nair) are American-born and typically American, but they finally come to accept their East Indian heritage. There, I just ruined the plot for you, because that is basically all that happens. There is some nonsense built up about how Gogol is named for his dad’s favorite Russian author (thus the title of the film), but when they finally reveal why the name is so important to Ashoke, it is quite anticlimactic.

This is the kind of movie that critics love, and audiences hate. Critics will describe “The Namesake” as being “a heartfelt tale of alienation and loss,” or “the truest story yet about the immigrant experience.” The problem is that as far as I am concerned there is no tale or story here. I would have settled even for some painfully naturalistic tale of woe. Instead this film just follows for a few decades the very straightforward lives of an immigrant family. The politically correct thing would be to laud this as a great artistic achievement, but the truth is that I was bored to tears. This movie seems to think it is the first to cover this ground. Here are some examples of supposedly watershed moments from “The Namesake”: Gogol’s aunt tells him to go to college and have all the fun he wants, but marry an Indian girl. Gogol has always ignored his Indian heritage, but when there is a family crisis, he learns to embrace it. Ashima and Ashoke aren’t sure what to do with themselves once their kids are out of the house. This self-congratulatory little film presents this stuff as if we have never seen it before.

If “The Namesake” sounds like your idea of a good way to spend two hours, then have at it. Just don’t come crying to me.

1 star.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Nine Queens (Nueve Reinas) 2000 ****1/2

Fans of “long con” movies like “The Grifters” and “The Sting” will appreciate “Nine Queens” as a respectful, perfectly crafted version of the classic theme. Those less versed in the con game will delight in the plot twists, getting treated to the taut filmmaking style of late Argentinean director Fabian Bielinsky and superb performances by stars Ricardo Darin and Gaston Pauls.
Have you ever wondered how easy it would be to con a few bucks out of a stranger? Juan (Gaston Pauls) and Marcos (Ricardo Darin) make their living out of small con jobs, cheating store clerks and old ladies out of 20, 40, or a hundred bucks. The two meet up, and the more experienced Marcos takes Juan under his wing, suggesting they merge their talents. Together they pound the pavements of Buenos Aires, working harder and making less per hour than most folks with real jobs. They are low-lifes with low aspirations, and one is led to wonder why they expend so much energy and take such risks for such small amounts. The answer, of course, is that it isn’t about the money. They do it for the thrill of putting on a little show, fooling someone else, and getting away with it.
“Nine Queens” takes its first big turn when these small timers get a shot at something big. A call from an old acquaintance of Marcos’s puts them in a position to make hundreds of thousands of dollars selling a set of counterfeit stamps called the Nine Queens to a collector. The question, as in all these grift movies, is “Who is really getting conned?”
I won’t ruin any more of the plot except to say that the payoff at the end is truly a class act. I must also take a moment to praise the outstanding acting of Darin and Pauls. Forgive me if I start to sound all giddy, but these guys are amazing! I first saw Ricardo Darin in “The Aura”, and the difference between his semi-autistic character in that film and his charmer in “Nine Queens” is a testament to Darin’s range. I think it would be fair to compare him to someone like Tom Hanks, and it is easy to see why he is a huge star in Argentina. Gaston Pauls also gives a superb performance in “Nine Queens” as a con-man hobbled by a conscience.
Writer/Director Bielensky keeps the action moving at a taut pace. As they say in the movie theatres, “Eight bucks gets you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!” I have to say again, as I did in my review of Bielensky’s “The Aura,” what a shame it is for the art that this filmmaker died after making only two films. Were he still making movies, I think he would have become a brand name in the world of Spanish-language cinema on the order of Pedro Almodovar. As for “Nine Queens,” the film has been adapted into an Americanized version called “Criminal,” starring John C. Reilly. I haven’t seen it, and I haven’t yet decided whether to check it out. Maybe I’ll just get my own copy of “Nine Queens” instead.
4.5 stars out of 5