Jun. 04, 2008 - Issue #659: Nextfest
Directed by Nadine Labaki
Written by Labaki, Rodney El Haddad, Jihad Hojeily
Starring Labaki, Yasmine Al Masri,
BRIAN GIBSON / email@example.com
A sweet little concoction from Lebanon, Nadine Labaki’s debut feature Caramel is all about love: the simmering heat of fresh romantic hope, the sticky mess of an affair with a married man and long-running female friendships, with any sappiness contained by the delicate frame of Nadine Labaki’s love letter to “my Beirut.”
Labaki stars as Layale, a salon worker who runs out whenever her lover calls her cell. The relationship, though, is as stalled as the car in which they clandestinely meet. Layale’s colleague Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), meanwhile, will soon be getting married, but she has a small female secret she wants to cover up. So do Rima (Joanna Moukarzel) and the salon workers’ friend Jamale (Gisèle Aouad), though they’re hiding their truths from themselves more than anyone else.
Caramel is one of those pleasant foreign films that’s good for an afternoon matinee or a rainy day rental. The warm, golden-brown richness of caramel is, no surprise, the dominant colour. The middle-class Catholic Lebanon here is still pretty concerned with the appearance of social propriety, at least, but pressure on women to marry is played down here—tradition is shown as more a blessing than a weight.
Much like Almodovar’s Volver, Labaki looks at the oft-ignored women’s work that underpins society, from hairdressing and cleaning to cooking and arranging a marriage. And beneath this tight-knit group of friends, where women sew and patch up differences and problems as best they can, Labaki weaves other patterns. Older women cope valiantly with menopause, spinsterhood and simply taking care of a burdensome sister. The hidden sweetness of same-sex love is spun in the most subtle and sensual way.
Although the film isn’t chatty (Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Embroideries offers a much more memorable eavesdrop on hilariously frank conversations amongst Middle Eastern women) and people are just a little too soap opera-ish photogenic, the film is often understated enough to charm. In one scene, Layale, with the slightest bit of sadistic pleasure, flirts with the policeman lovestruck by her, ripping off the hair between his eyebrows with a little caramel. In another, the most melancholic moment, Aunt Rosie can’t make over her years of family allegiance for a late-blooming romance.
Small, tender scenes like that, and little details—pant legs too short, a glass aquarium separating a woman and a girl, a woman flashing the reflection of her shorn hair in a store window—make Caramel a nice, light passing fancy.
Kung Fu Panda
Directed by John Stevenson, Mark Osborne
Written by Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Starring Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman
OMAR MOUALLEM / firstname.lastname@example.org
Kung Fu Panda’s anthropomorphizing of animals trained in the martial arts seems like an arbitrary attempt to engage a child audience. Unlike Bee Movie or Shark Tale, their animality has nothing to do with the story; the characters do human things in mostly human ways. But notably, the adults watching—I cannot speak for the children this device was tailored for—will forget that they are watching scrapping animals.
Jack Black voices Po the panda, the obese son of a noodle maker with kung fu aspirations. His father, a goose (don’t ask why), wants him to inherit the the family noodle restaurant and constantly pressures Po into working the bowls. But every chance Po gets, he’s dreaming of fighting alongside the furious five—Tigris (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross)—based upon the five animal fighting styles of kung fu.
One day, the animals of Po’s Chinese community are summoned to the Jade Palace for an important announcement: the dragon warrior, the “one” chosen to protect the world, mythologized for hundreds of years, is about to be selected. Po, due to the demands of the noodle industry, doesn’t make it to the Jade Palace in time to see the spectacle. So when he straps himself with fireworks to get over the locked Palace fence, his entrance is misconstrued as divine intervention.
Po, with the highest cholesterol of anyone in the village (panda or not) starts training with his heroes, who see him for the fraud he is. But according to legend, his appointment was destiny, and so to question it is to question the cosmos.
Kung Fu Panda contrives an antagonist, Tai Lung, a beefy snow leopard who escapes from prison to wreak havoc on China. But he’s hardly used and hardly impressive, spending most of his time chained up or foreshadowed by the the furious five. Instead, the writers stress a more important, more entertaining internal struggle of Po to believe in his skills, win the trust of his counterparts and prove that despite being a furry blob, he can succeed as the dragon warrior. It is the perfect antidepressant for any chubby kid being ridiculed each gym class for his rolls or her inability to run a lap without collapsing.
Dreamworks Animation, which, in my books, has a reputation for over-relying on pop culture references and cheap wink-wink jokes for the parents, has stepped it up a here. As like the rest of the studio’s movies, Kung Fu Panda is very funny, but it achieves laughter not by its context—as it so easily could with animal characters—but by its story, plain and simple. Panda or person, Po’s journey is one to embrace.
Michel Gondry Retrospective
Featuring Human Nature,
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Sun, Jun 8 (2 pm)
Metro Cinema, $10
JOSEF BRAUN / email@example.com
After the middling reception of Human Nature (2001), there was the sense that Michel Gondry, so freshly approaching feature films after establishing himself as a music video wizard, was destined to lose the contest to see which emerging hipster director was best suited to realize the wondrous and highly distinctive imaginings of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman to Spike Jonze, whose triumphant indie crossover Being John Malkovich (1999) was followed by the in fact much better Adaptation (2002). By the time Gondry had parried with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (’04) however, things shifted considerably, to the degree where those following the peculiar themes of Kaufman’s growing oeuvre had to start wondering if he and Gondry weren’t in fact separated at birth, so strikingly like-minded were they in their nurturing of a certain dystopian loneliness, self-loathing and deep longing, their emphatic manipulation of daydream reverie, their insistence of blithely mixing metaphor with recognizable realism, their crippling disdain for the crueler mechanics of modern disconnection and their tender attention to the value of hand-made things.
Both Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine will be screening this weekend as Metro Cinema continues its series of director showcase double feature matinees, and the leap in maturity for both Kaufman and Gondry from one film to the next is as evident as ever. Human Nature is of course marvelously inventive, but, not unlike Being John Malkovich, it favours facile cruelty over insight or genuine character development, perhaps most of all because it makes for a handy plot-forwarding device. Concerning biology, base impulses and the difficulty of love, it’s worth watching, but Eternal Sunshine is such a revelation that it does its predecessor no favours when held up for direct comparison.
“I’m not an impulsive person,” explains lonesome Joel in a voice-over so hushed as to be sound from a cocoon, an interior voice that seems embarrassed even when no one’s listening, like its trying to hide in the shadows of an empty room. But then why is Joel suddenly ditching work to take the train to Montauk? He has no idea, though those of us watching his story unfold come to understand that Joel’s a hapless victim of a cocktail of eternal return, irrepressible memories and inconsolable heartache. Though all his memories of his ex-girlfriend Clementine have ostensibly been erased by a team of professionals, something in him can’t help but go back to Montauk, where the equally “spotless” Clementine waits.
This amnesiac romance, with its very likeable supporting characters and storylines, is on the one hand far more attuned to the best elements in science fiction author Philip K Dick novels than almost any of the many Dick adaptations spat out of Hollywood, while on the other it is that rare truly believable love story, one laced with intense pain, delight, comedy and uncontainable messiness. It’s also a cry against consumer culture’s invasion of modern life, a dazzling display of tactile special effects in the digital age, and it accomplishes the not insubstantial feat of making me actually like Jim Carrey (while continuing to fall in love with Kate Winslet). Lastly, it introduces a number of sub-themes that will be revisited in Gondry’s subsequent movies The Science of Sleep (’06) and Be Kind Rewind (’08), both of which Metro will screen next week. V
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