What’s the Czech for “Beautiful movie”?

I’ve pretty much given up on the Academy Awards for years now, to the extent that I have no idea whatsoever which films have been winning since that hobbit movie. I did hear about that Irish indie romance Once, though, but I didn’t really follow it. On paper (or, more accurately, “computer screen”) it sounded rather twee.

Then a message board friend of mine mentioned seeing it. He didn’t write much about the film, but from what he’d written it was clear that I wanted to check out the film.

Now I’m in this silly situation: I loved the film and I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the best, most beautifully told and acted love stories I’ve ever seen on film. I also fear that anything that I might write about it will make the film sound twee. Words such as “sweet” and “charming” come to mind, but they don’t really get at what makes the film work.

It’s funny (in a film nerd way, that is): we watched two films on two consecutive nights last week that were amazingly similar in some ways but couldn’t be more different in others: Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland and, well, Once. Both were filmed simply, going for verisimilitude, especially in the acting and writing. Both were City movies, so to speak, very much rooted in London and Dublin respectively. Both were about people who have to struggle to make ends meet at times, and not the Guardian-reading upper middle class characters of, say, Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering.

Yet Once has an artlessness that in its effectiveness is highly artistic, whereas Wonderland never lets you forget that you’re watching a film by a director who wants his directing to be visible on screen. In its digicam, improv way Winterbottom’s film is as much a director’s film as any movie by Scorsese. It is the sort of film that some people might call “pretentious” because it forms its material in unexpected ways and makes this very clear on every frame. Once, by comparison, wants to be a small film, is a small film and knows it.

But it’s by no means unambitious. Pulling off a simple, bittersweet love story – with songs, no less! – take courage, or stupidity, but whatever it was, they managed it. For lack of a better word, Once may just be the most honest love story I’ve ever seen. And in some ways I hope never to read the words, “From the makers of Once” because I’m afraid that there’s no way they could do anything other than disappoint. Poor buggers…

Anyway, enough words from someone who basically said, “Words won’t live up to the film so I’ll keep this short.” Both films, Wonderland and Once, are very much worthwhile. The former is probably more a matter of personal taste – Winterbottom’s films are not likeable as such, nor do they set out to be – but still a definite recommendation. And now I will leave you with trailery goodness and shut up.

Before the devil knows you’re dead

Anthony Minghella

I was planning to write an entry today on John Sayles’ Limbo, but that has to wait until tomorrow or the day after. Since my browser start page is BBC news, I’ve just read that Anthony Minghella has died. I’ve written about his films before (e.g. here and here); I liked many of the films I’d seen that he’d directed, and those I didn’t like I still appreciated. He knew how to work with actors that I didn’t particularly like (such as Gwyneth Paltrow or Robin Wright Penn). And he directed the film that convinced me that Alan Rickman wasn’t Evil(tm):

A Life in Pictures: Anthony Minghella. Rest in peace.

If it ain’t broken…

… oh, but it is. It is. In subtle but essential ways.

Okay, that’s probably way more cryptic than you would’ve hoped for – so let’s clarify things: Anthony Minghella’s latest, Breaking and Entering, a film that feels like it was made by Guardian readers for Guardian readers, gets some things very right. If you’re into urban decay, atmosphere, good acting, if you basically want to see a mood poem set in London, or indeed if you want to ogle Jude Law and enjoy his accent, this film is for you.

Abiding the Law

If you want a stringent story with credible character motivations and subtle writing… Meh. Not so much. It’s a shame, really, because the acting is there: I’m not usually a fan of Robin Wright Penn, but she makes her character’s pain credible, and the rest of the cast does a good, sometimes great job – but it doesn’t help that the film takes things that were already clear when they were only implied and makes them clumsily explicit. Also, one of the central two relationships seems to pop up out of nowhere in between scenes – and this, to me, almost crippled the film. (In fact, I felt like I’d fallen asleep for five minutes and had missed an important scene.)

What I really liked: the depiction of London; Martin Freeman’s character (oh so British!); Vera Farmiga’s character, miles away from her shrink in The Departed; Juliette Binoche (there are people, good friends of mine, who hate her – I’m sorry, guys, but I hope you forgive me for liking her acting a lot); the look and feel of the film. In some ways, I think I would have preferred Breaking and Entering if I’d seen it dubbed into some language I barely understand. If I could have watched the dialogues through some sound-proof window and taken in only the images and the soundtrack, I might have loved it.

P.S.: Minghella’s working on an anthology film called New York I Love You. Check out the list of directors, and give a good, hearty “What the…?”

Those who can’t, teach…

I’m about to be off and teach a two-hour colloquium on film studies. I’ve never studied the subject, but somehow the person who asked me to teach the session thought that a) having  a PhD in English and American Literature, b) being a film nut (and having 400+ DVDs to prove it) and c) having an opinion on everything qualifies me for this.

Hurm, as a certain psycho superhero might say.

Anyway, since I have to make a few last notes, I’m going to have to make this short. I’ll be analysing extracts from three films with them: The Talented Mr Ripley, Fight Club and Memento. Having re-watched the beginning of those three films, I was reminded again why I liked them so much in the first place. Ripley got a bad rap with some critics, but I still find it one of Anthony Minghella’s, Matt Damon’s and Jude Law’s finest movies. And for those who think the film lacks tension, I thought I could put a highly spoilerish excerpt in the blog. Those who haven’t seen the film yet, don’t click on the clip lest you do so at your own peril!

However, I don’t want to leave you with murder and mayhem (or soap – sorry, wrong movie…!), so here’s another, more peaceful clip from the same film. Dunno what it is about the song, but I always get an urge to snap my fingers and tap my feet when I hear it. Enjoy!