Tuesday, December 4, 2007

SLIFF 2007 Coverage Part 5

St. Louis International Film Festival 2007 reviews for Nov. 16:

Title: Beauty in Trouble
Director: Jan Hrebejk
Country: Czech Republic
Score: 7.0
“Beauty in Trouble” takes place in the post-flood Czech Republic where a displaced working-class family tries to survive, not so much the consequences of natural disaster, as the stress-fatigued nuances of family interaction. Marcela (Anna Geislerová) is the titular beauty in trouble, a woman contending with two children (one asthmatic), a husband who has turned to crime, a crumbling make-shift home and a sinister, petty step-father.

After Marcela’s husband is jailed for grand theft auto, she meets Josef, the rich victim of the crime. Their rapidly budding relationship is complicated, not the least by the outside impression of gold-digging: Josef is wealthy and older, Marcela is beautiful and younger. Both have unrelated obstacles to fray their nerves, Marcela with her parents and Josef with a real-estate hustler. There isn’t a lot of fanfare or thrills, but the film does communicate the need for patience, endurance and an underlying zeal for life in an even and understated manner.

Like other meandering, interpersonal dramas where camerawork is strictly utilitarian for 95% of the film, this movie lives and dies on the strength of the performances and script. I’ll say foremost that both are quite good, though not memorable. To its credit, the film doesn’t plead or fuss for awards with extreme histrionics, ironic twists of tragedy or shocking personal revelations.

Marcela is a sympathetic character whose appeal comes from her inner confidence and practical survival skills. She’s also got sex appeal on her side, the type that benefits from looks, but really soars because of her brash individualism and uninhibited sensuality. Think “Erin Brockovich” without all the sensationalism and ideological pandering. You won’t feel like the writers and producers are screaming “THIS IS EMPOWERMENT” in your ear; you’ll just feel that she is real and strong-willed.

The rest of the cast is just as talented, especially considering that they have to develop equally in-depth characters in far less screen-time. Generally they succeed. Jirí Schmitzer, in particular, is masterly as Marcela’s “Uncle” Richie, a selfish, petulant codger who manages to be cruel and perverted and yet so totally, instantly recognizable as true to life, that he outdoes every Bond villain at incurring audience ire. He’s mean in the way that drives you crazy in a thousand little ways without ever physically harming anyone (though he comes close at least once).

Unfortunately, nothing about “Beauty in Trouble” can really help distinguish it from the pack and even I’m having trouble pitching it convincingly. The back of the DVD will probably play up the passionate sex scenes, the exotic locale with rustic local flavor, the brave determination of the lead and so on, but all that really cheats the film of its true success: creating convincing drama that rings true to life.

Title: Emma’s Bliss
Director: Sven Taddicken
Country: Germany
Score: 8.0
How do you make a romantic comedy that still feels fresh? For starters, you can stop treating Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant as characters types that somehow represent all of Western civilization. The number of romantic comedies that can be described as Roberts-Grant love stories (whether or not they actually feature those actors) could fill a Blockbuster. (They already do. Next time you’re on the way to the mailbox for your Netflix DVDs, pop into a Blockbuster and you’ll see the concrete proof.)

So it’s refreshing to see a movie like “Emma’s Bliss” where the central love story takes place between a renegade car salesman dying of stomach cancer and a reclusive, anti-establishment pig-rancher. Surprisingly, it’s not any more contrived than a Hollywood rom-com, but far more entertaining and sincere.

Jürgen Vogel plays Max, an unhappy auto hawker who has slipped into oblivious malaise and unethical behavior under the weight of modern life, but is pushed by the certainty of his own painful demise to seize the day… and his boss’s ill-gotten cash stash. Fleeing from the scene of the crime, he crashes off the road and lands on Emma’s modest property. She drags him inside to nurse back to consciousness, but keeps the money she finds and burns the car. Max stows away in her barn, gradually graduating to her tool-shed and bedroom as the two unlikely friends fall in love.

Emma (Jördis Triebel) completely steals the show, going far beyond the sugary feistiness of traditional rom com “independent spirits” by digging into livestock guts with her bare hands and lovingly slitting pig-throats “the old fashion way.” She wrinkles her nose at vegetarian dishes and even more so at Max’s misguided attempt to alphabetize her canned goods (his cleaning is a deep violation of her stubborn sensibilities).

Don’t let the intrinsic wackiness or food theme fool you, though. This film is about challenging our sterilized notions of experiencing life only through layers of glass and plastic. “Emma’s Bliss” focuses on genuine love and pain (both parts of her hand-crafted “bliss”) and not merely making our mouths water with savory meats or media-sculpted celebrities. It’s closer to “Harold and Maude” than a typical contender for this list.

I should note that, yes, there is comedy. Expect it to be closer to the everyday smiles discovered throughout real relationships and not the ones synthesized by the outrageous situations that TV characters and Meg Ryan constantly get themselves into. This, despite the somewhat over-the-top personalities and elaborate meet-cute. Taddicken sells it by relying on sensitivity for his characters, in keeping with the author’s (Claudia Schreiber) love and respect for her work. The camerawork also pays tribute to them by refusing to shy away from the dirt, blood and blemishes that make theses people come alive and gradually awakening the audience to a beauty that commercials for personal hygiene products have trained us not to see.

1 comment:

Patti said...

I think I gave the same scores for both films. I liked "Emma's Bliss" a lot.