Friday, September 08, 2006

Binoche in a sack, Super-8, blood subtitles

Watched a lot of movies this week: Little Miss Sunshine (again); Sideways, V for Vendetta (oh, cute bald Natalie Portman!). The three that really stood out, though, were:

Caché, Michael Haneke's mystery about a French couple (Daniel Auteuil, Juliette Binoche) who start to receive videotapes suggesting someone is spying on them. The title translates as "Hidden," and as the movie progresses it becomes clear that it's appropriate on many levels. It's not just a film about a middle-class couple's personal dramas, and the secrets people keep from each other, but also about France's immigrant population, here represented as either ignored and overlooked or eyed with suspicion and malice. On a side note, why do people in French movies look like ... like ... like people? Here Juliette Binoche is in shapeless linen dresses. Characters wear rumpled pants, have craggy faces and cigarette-graveled voices. But unlike in a Hollywood movie, where those things would be used to define the character ("the mom, she sounds like she smokes four packs a day, okay?"), here it's just a reflection of who the actor is. The reality is almost unreal, it's so unusual.

Torremolinos 73, a Spanish-language movie set during Franco's Spain (though the action seems largely unaffected by that fact). Here an encyclopedia salesman, struggling to make ends meet, is offered a choice by his boss: get involved in a new business venture making, um, scientific, educational films (starring your wife) to sell in Scandinavia, or lose your job. As it turns out, he has a knack for wielding a Super-8 camera and she quickly sheds her inhibitions (and various outfits) and soon they're so successful that he's given the chance to write and direct a real film. The plot, which also revolves around the couple's attempts to start a family, could have been melodramatic, overly sleazy, judgemental or plain silly, but it's none of the above. Rather, it's honest, quirky (ooh, I hate that word!), compelling. I saw it on HBO Latino, so no subtitles, but it must be on DVD by now.

Night Watch, apparently, was a huge box-office hit in Russia. And while the plot may seem hackneyed to me (ancient battle between good and evil is revived; the Apocalypse is near; vampires are involved), some of the visuals are creative and clever (the doll that sprouts spindly spider legs; the bird who changes into a woman; the backstory illustrated with a hand-drawn flip-book). Most innovative, though, are the subtitles. Not content to simply flash obediently at the bottom of the screen in yellow Arial, they fit themselves into the action. One of the best examples appears as a boy gets a nosebleed while swimming underwater. The subtitles, dark red, fade in ... and then wash away, dissolving like blood in water. At other times they move with the speaking character, disappearing behind objects and coming out the other side, or fading out slowly on a particularly important statement, allowing just a little longer for the viewer to grasp their significance.

Lest I give the impression of being a foreign-film geek, I should point out that I also saw the last half of Better Off Dead (though by this point it's already etched into the cerebral cortex) and Cheech and Chong's Next Movie (which actually has some beautifully crafted comic moments, and no, I wasn't watching it stoned).

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