Parade of Bombs: Vitus, Angel-A, Arctic Tale, 2 Days in Paris, Crazy Love, La Vie en Rose, and Introducing the Dwights

The following capsule reviews originally saw the light of print in Willamette Week throughout the summer of 2007.

Vitus

Boring Swiss film about a 12-year-old piano prodigy. The Schumann and Liszt on the soundtrack are bewitchingly performed, as is Mario Berretta’s original score, and there’s a to-die-for marriage of sight and sound as the pianist’s hands prestidigitate above the keyboard in a wild wash of clusters, creating thick, block chords clangorously reverberating through our senses. Yet the movie isn’t really concerned with classical music, or with the world of a young musician adjusting to life on the concert stage (that does come, but not until the final scene); if anything, it’s a sort of stock-market caper film in which plot developments arrive as slowly as an oyster forms a pearl—not that there are any pearls here.

Little Vitus has a mother from Hell, a highstrung, red-haired biddy who tactlessly dismisses his first piano teacher, then quits her day job in order to be a controlling bitch full-time. The boy’s resentment and anti-social behavior are thus understandable. Even so, I couldn’t care about a brat embittered by his own superiority, who has to try to fail. “The hardest thing,” he confesses, “was to lose at chess.” With Urs Zucker as Vitus’s daddy, whose chest hair resembles a Jackson Pollack canvas.

Angel-A

A turgidly paced fantasy about an angel in a black cocktail dress (the
toweringly tall Rie Rasmussen) who descends to Paris to bestow self-esteem lessons to a Moroccan bum (the squatty roo Jamel Debbouze) who’s on the lam from loan sharks. The two of them argue endlessly and abrasively for most of Angel-A‘s 88 minutes. Thierry Arbogast’s black-and-white cinematography reaches for the heights attained by Gordon Willis in Manhattan; it doesn’t quite get there. Arbogast (who shot on color film stock) nonetheless has some stunning wide-angle images of figures crossing a bridge over the Seine. Singer Anya Garbarek composes evocative orchestral mood music for the soundtrack, including a few notes from her famous daddy Jan on saxophone. But the movie’s jokey tone, in which writer-director Luc Besson tastelessly reduces the Algerian conflict to a punch line, is at odds with all that. There are vile flashbacks to the angel’s previous lives on Earth: mean-spirited vignettes about cancer and suicide—which might not be so contemptible if Besson weren’t playing the scenes for razzy, zippy little laughs. Some time ago, Besson announced that he would cease directing; if there’s any mercy and justice, it’s a promise he’ll keep.

Arctic Tale

Possibly the worst nature documentary ever made. The movie sentimentalizes the predatory relationship between polar bears and walruses, yet that’s the least of its problems. Adam Ravetch’s footage of walrus pods impresses, but director Sarah Robertson trivializes both the critters and the photographic achievement by scoring shots to such insultingly bad pop clichés as “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge and Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration.” (Hasn’t she heard any black music since the ’70s?) In Robertson’s quest to condescend to her audience, there’s non-stop narration by Queen Latifah that resonates with the counterfeit warmth of an Aunt Jemima on corporate welfare. I think I’ll just skip the interminable scene devoted to walrus flatulence. As the end credits roll, “ethnically diverse” snaggle-toothed kids with high-pitched voices (and smiles as frozen as Arctic tundra) read instructions off cue cards on how we can curb global warming by using less electricity, washing laundry in cold water, etc. I cringed with embarrassment for these children, these little pawns in eco-pornography, some of whom may grow up to be conservative Republikinz one day and resent how obnoxiously they’re used here. I didn’t like March of the Penguins either, but it had a kind of dull integrity: Arctic Tale is cynical PC smugness in overdrive.

2 Days in Paris

I walked in thinking that I liked Julie Delpy (Before Sunset was my favorite film of 2004). By the time 2 Days in Paris ended—well before then, actually—I had reassessed my opinion: She’s an embarrassment. Delpy, in her directorial debut, shows the poise, aplomb, and savoir-faire of a typical YouTube auteur. Free from the guidance of Richard Linklater, Delpy outs herself as the sort of smut-obsessed hipster whose sense of entitlement lies in direct proportion to her trust fund. She’s made a dumb culture-clash comedy in which a French girl and an American boy visit her parents, a scenario that’s merely a ragged framework for scoring cheap and easy pseudo-political points. There are running gags about Parisian cabbies as wife-beating, homophobic racists. A right-wing character turns out to be a pedophile, yet is Miss Delpy really so advanced? Her palpable smugness makes her as creepy as what she complains about. She relies on voice-over too much, rather than allowing a story or even an observation to unfold visually. As a writer, she has no ear for dialogue; her grotesque jokes aren’t funny, her timing terrible. At least Adam Goldberg is around, showing off his tattoos, biceps, and ability to chain-smoke. Second only to Jindabyne, this is the most offensive movie I’ve seen this year.

Crazy Love

Dan Klores’ worthless documentary on the blinding of 22-year-old Linda Riss, and her subsequent marriage to the man who hired goons to toss lye in her face, exemplifies inept filmmaking of an exceptionally pernicious kind. Klores knows from the start where he’s going with the material—he makes no new discoveries. His stylistic technique consists entirely of devices that have been done to death by television, which is where Crazy Love belongs. The first, second, and third-act “revelations” seem to be on a timer, going off right on cue. Johnny Mathis and Nat Cole songs dot the soundtrack in a desperate bid to add a trace of 1950s period authenticity; mostly, Klores assembles giant heads in endless close-ups, and the eyewitnesses’ recollections are scored to the standard-issue horror electronica, tubas-in-distress, or marimbas in an apocalyptic fit that we’ve heard before. What’s truly obscene about this saga of a disabled woman, who’s so lonely that she yields to the desire of a violent stalker, is that Klores glorifies sleaziness yet sanitizes the proceedings just enough not to upset middle-class, high-white tastes. Crazy Love may sound “fun” in a sick sort of way, yet even at that level the movie flops. (**And thanks to my review, so did this film in the Portland market–it was gone from Fox Tower within a week, I’m pleased to note.)

La Vie en Rose

As 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues desecrated Billie Holiday, so this biopic portrays Edith Piaf as a frog-voiced pig. Piaf may have been crude, yet must the movie’s point of view be crude as well? Director Olivier Dahan’s favored camera setup is a darting motion across the foreground, like someone skulking around the back of a room; he places Piaf (Marion Cotillard) at the top of the screen, peering at her through the crowds. After a while, this becomes a sickening effect, as if the story were being told through the eyes of an off-screen stalker. Dahan gives La Vie en Rose the high gloss of prestige, yet after milking us for sympathy over poor little whore-nurtured Edie, brought up in her granny’s Normandy brothel and temporarily blinded in childhood, he tries to wring a cheap laugh out of her bopping into a metal pole. The adult Piaf’s grief-stricken flutters and cries are photographed head-on, as if close-ups of misery automatically constitute great cinema. One good moment: A circus fire-swallower practices his trade against a cloudy, purple night sky; in the atmospheric mingle of his exhalations, Little Edie has a vision of St. Thérèse. It’s a quiet sequence of transcendent mystery, more compelling than the garishly re-created Piaf chansons.

Introducing the Dwights

In Secrets and Lies a decade ago, Brenda Blethyn’s shrieking harpy number seemed fresh, or at least authentic. By Little Voice, she had already grown shrill and stale. Her newest role, as an overbearing music-hall entertainer who bursts on stage with, “Good evening, ladies and genitalia!” does nothing to expand her range. As her soft and sensitive cutie-pie son (Khan Chittenden) watches from the wings, Mama Dwight’s anti-male stage patter steamrollers forth with such unforgettable quips as, in reference to sex with the boy’s father, “It’s like ‘avin’ a wardrobe fallin’ on ya—with a key still in the lock.”

The sitcom-derived shenanigans include a little girl, no older than 10, singing Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and Chittenden’s tentative exploration of romance with a raggedy, dishwater blonde (Emma Booth), who’s the sort of cat-dragged-in tart upheld as a sex symbol only in dismal English comedies. The movie, which begins with Janis Joplin screeching “Piece of My Heart” in the opening scene, leaves an unanswered question: If men are so terrible, how do they get to be so awful, if not from exposure to women like the ones here? — N.P. THOMPSON

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