Tuesday, December 2, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 7

Title: The Custodian
Director: Rodrigo Moreno
Country: Argentina
Score: 9.5
Review:
As I discovered last year, the bustle of the festival and running about from theater to theater after work while still trying to fit in food, sleep and life can make it difficult to ease into the pace of slower, meditative films. Festival season tends to make me particularly conscious of poor editing, excessive length and lugubrious pacing. Yet every once in a while a film like “The Custodian” comes by and reassures me that it’s not my attention span that’s the problem; some films can be slow and minimalist and still be utterly fascinating.

The custodian (or “minder” in the more direct translations), Ruben, is a personal bodyguard for Artemio, an important minister. Ruben has managed to erase almost all outward evidence of his identity, forming himself into a diligent, silent, opaque presence that it variously ignored and abused by the family he is sworn to protect. Ruben quietly suffers each indignity without comment. For instance, he must wait outside while Artemio conducts extramarital affairs and must watch silently when Artemio’s daughter messes around with a boy in the backseat of the chauffeur’s car.

Ruben’s own family, a neurotic sister and her untalented daughter, offers no comfort or understanding. What goes on inside his head is not known. He remains a mystery, although we discover hints: he’s a talented sketch-artist (his pictures reveal possible romantic and sexual fantasies), was once a hero in the military and he cares more about the world than he lets on.

Moreno’s direction and Barbara Alvarez’s cinematography is some of the best I’ve seen this year. They shoot scenes with nearly mathematical precision (overhead shots of Artemio’s parking arrangements are frigidly geometric) in cold clean colors and 90 degree arrangements that are emotionally neutral. Unusual close-ups and shallow focus guide our attention to unimportant details, creating an atmosphere that reflects both Ruben’s boredom and his observant nature. A clever thematic touch is that Ruben never passes through a door while the camera is watching, putting him and the audience forever outside the action.

“The Custodian” is actually so hypnotic when almost nothing is happening, that I actually had a twinge of regret when the action picked up. When Ruben is given scenes like a family dinner party and a visit to a prostitute, I felt that these more overt “events” broke the spell of the gentle rhythm. The ending twist, however, feels right and sort of justifies the rising action.

Fans of Jean-Pierre Melville, Fabian Bielinsky and Bela Tarr should like this one.


Title: Timecrimes
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Country: Spain
Score: 9.0
Review:
Hector has just moved into a new house with his loving wife. He’s lounging around in the backyard when he thinks he spots a woman stripping in the woods. His natural voyeurism takes over. He goes to investigate, only to be stabbed by a bandaged killer and forced to flee into a secluded laboratory. The only person on staff, a suspicious young scientist, encourages him to hide in a strange cylinder of fluid. He emerges earlier that same day and gradually comes to accept that he has traveled through time. While trying to prevent any paradoxes from occurring, he inadvertently commits a horrible crime and must complicate things even further to undo the past.

Vigalondo’s three act screenplay (with each act covering the same handful of hours) is one of the funnest and cleverest time-travel plots of recent memory. The first act features all sorts of strange, unexplained details, allowing TT veterans to anticipate how they are going to fit into the timeline. The second act then follows through in a manner that I think is intentionally predictable and familiar. Then the third act comes along and makes mince meat of the other two with post-modern humor and surprising twists.

The plot is quite entertaining in itself, but Vigalondo accentuates it’s with a very distinctive brand of humor that does almost entirely without dialogue-based “jokes.” I laughed out loud several times, often purely due to the beautiful timing and symmetry of the action (the storyboarding and editing must have been excruciatingly rigorous). The balance of the cast (there are only four actors) is quite neat, with Hector’s development taking center stage. The way he transforms from naïve pawn to steely mastermind as he learns the ins and outs of time travel, is perfectly displayed by his body language and, quite literally, his body, which becomes increasingly bruised and bloodied.

Vigalondo has done all the hard work for us behind the scenes. TT veterans will be pleased to discover that his screenplay is free from obvious plot holes, while TT newbies should find the complicated plot relatively easy to follow. Since it is both more playful and less mentally strenuous, I’d call this (wait for it…) a good primer for “Primer.” Both films are excellent investigations of the scientific and moral complexities of TT, but while “Primer” is so dark and challenging as to sit permanently in the cult corner, “Timecrimes” is already slated for an American remake. Word is that David Cronenberg will direct, which would be seriously cool, but see this first (and then see “Primer,” which is even better).

6 comments:

exactly why said...

I'm so glad that Timecrimes turned out to be all you'd hoped! Both of these movies look like something I'll have to look for.

Mad Dog said...

Timecrimes sounds really good! I'm relieved that it doesn't just stop at being a traditional time travel movie, otherwise I was going to have to roll my eyes when I asked, "I wonder who the mysterious bandaged stranger is?"

Cronenberg doing more genre stuff could be exciting... but his mainstream-drama-mixed-with-horrific-violence streak has been so good, I'd be sad to see him go a different direction.

Kathryn said...

@ Mad Dog: The sentiment of your first paragraph was echoed by several groups we passed walking out of the theater.

You really should see this one.

exactly why said...

Just watched Timecrimes. Very well thought out. Lovely ending.

Mad Dog said...

Just saw Timecrimes and I have to say, where you saw it as entertaining and humorous, I saw as dark and pessimistic. I also am not sure I'd buy Hector's turn to crime being that quick and hand wringing-free. Otherwise a nicely done flick.

Walrus said...

Dark and pessimist, sure, but entertaining and humorous, too. Or maybe I'm just entertained and amused by the wrong stuff. :)