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.

Lookin’ good… but does it add up to anything?

For me, Michael Winterbottom is rather hit-and-miss. I usually like the atmosphere of his films, but at the same time they tend to leave me somewhat cold. Intellectually and aesthetically I appreciate them, but I rarely care.

Tim Robbins in search of a script that makes more sense

Code 46, his foray into near-future SF (sci-fi, that is, not San Francisco), had exactly the same effect on me. It’s beautifully shot, its digital imagery more evocative than any version of the future I’ve seen since Blade Runner – more so because the futuristic effect is subtle. Winterbottom’s future is our present, just more so.

But this is a film that struggles to be a mood piece, or perhaps video art. I enjoyed looking at it, but I didn’t particularly enjoy watching it. Certainly my difficulty following the plot largely stemmed from the bad mix that left half the lines unintelligible, which wasn’t helped by the fact that in the near future, apparently everyone speaks English mixed with Spanish and other languages. But if the plot is as simple as I think it is (and the reviews I’ve read since watching the film seem to support that theory), then it doesn’t hold up very well, really. Tim Robbins’ investigator falls hard for the once more waif-like Samantha Morton who is suspected of stealing genetic passports that allow people to travel to places that would otherwise be off-limit to them. It turns out that she’s cloned from his mother’s genetic material, so their relationship is a criminal offense. Wacky hijinks ensue.

Trés artistique, enh?

I usually like elliptic films – I like not being led by the hand, whether by movies or by books. But sometimes ellipticness seems to be a cheap excuse for vague writing, directing and acting. The film intrigues intermittently, but it rarely follows up on the intriguing bits: for instance, William Geld, Robbins’ character, has his memory of  Maria Gonzalez (Samantha Morton) erased at the end so he won’t resume the genetically dangerous relationship. He goes home to his child and his wife who knows of the affair but cannot ever tell. There’s an interesting story in that. Unfortunately, the film focuses on William and Maria but never makes their attraction credible. We know that they have feelings for one another because of how they act, yet we never feel the emotions. Their love or passion or horniness or whatever it is, it remains an idea.

And frankly, I am getting somewhat annoyed with Samantha Morton’s acting, or perhaps rather with the characters she’s offered. She has this patented wild-child thing going that makes her come across as slightly funny in the head, or as someone who doesn’t do social conventions at all. But the longer the more it feels like an affectation, like a neo-punk letting us know very clearly how different she is. I could imagine that this is what attracts a number of indie directors to her, but it’s becoming tiring.

Then again, I shouldn’t forget that she was also in this:

P.S.: Code 46 was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who also wrote Millions. I guess I may prefer his children’s books to his adult movie writing. The Claim, which he also did with Winterbottom, shares this film’s vagueness and coldness.