Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Novemberkind

Novemberkind was the opening offering of the recent German Film Festival - which was staged to celebrate twenty years since the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. We went to the second night - apparently the first night at the Embassy was almost full. A pity, then, that the opening night crowd was subjected to such a depressing film. Not a bad film, but definitely depressing.

Novemberkind is set in roughly present-day Malchow, in what used to be East Germany. The central character of the film is Inga, a young woman who has been brought up by her grandparents believing that her Mother drowned when she was a baby. One day a slightly creepy older man called Robert (who is a professor of literature from Konstanz in what used to be West Germany) comes into the library in which she works and engages her in conversation and ends up taking her out for dinner. It emerges that Robert knew Inga's Mother and in fact she attended a writing course of his in Konstanz. So then a voyage of personal discovery begins for Inga, about what actually happened to her Mother and Father, and the audience is taken along for the ride.

The story is played very straight. As Inga makes discoveries we see the events as flashbacks, with the same actress that plays Inga playing her Mother. We never really know how she feels about her discoveries - we can only interpret from her interactions with other character in the film. There are no voice-overs, and no intimate chats with friends about what she's thinking. Robert the literature professor lurks in the background and we never get over the feeling he is just a creepy voyeur using Inga's plight as fodder for his next novel.

I think the film's raison d'etre is an illustration of the impact of Germany's East/West divide on the lives of individuals - in this case, Inga, Inga's parents, Inga's grandparents, and a Russian soldier Inga's Mother meets when Inga is a baby. If this is the case, it certainly achieves it's aim. For the audience, it's a bit of a harrowing ride,and as Ian points out, when it reaches it's conclusion there aren't many other options left. The unfolding of the plot is what makes the film interesting so I won't discuss it except to say that once Inga finds out that her Mother didn't drown 25 years ago but escaped to West Germany the big question is How could a Mother abandon her baby? And you'll have to watch the film to find out the detail, but the answer to the big question is that she couldn't.

I thought this was quite a powerful film and somewhat harrowing. I wasn't uplifted and so I hesitate to recommend it, but I wasn't bored.

Anne's rating 2.5/5 Ian's rating 2/5

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

(500) Days of Summer is a romantic comedy that strives to be different and quirky. Largely it succeeds. Its point of difference is that it shows a relationship from a male perspective and from a male perspective that is the opposite of usual US TV/Film stereotype. Tom is an unabashed romantic, a believer in "one true love", while Summer (the girl he falls in love with) is more cynical and wants commitment-free fun. This film is also quirky in that it is not shy at quaintly imitating a slew of other film conceits (the all-knowing narrator, inter-titles, non-chronological scenes, a split screen scene, a song and dance routine, gratuitous animation, a wise-beyond-her-years sub-teen little sister, etc).

The fact that the story is told from Tom's point of view (slightly disguised by having an unidentified third person narrator) is both refreshingly normal (as opposed to film-like) and also annoying. It is normal in that, unlike many films, we don't have a God-like understanding of both the main characters. Just as in real life where we often don't understand those around us, including our nearest and dearest. It is annoying because whereas it is clear where Tom is coming from, Summer is an enigma - and her enigma is more interesting than Tom's character.

Tom is surprised that Summer agrees to go out with him (this might have something to do with her being new in town). He continues to pursue her and apart from repeatedly saying that she doesn't want a relationship and that they aren't having one, she goes along with him. This confuses the poor guy, who blindly pretends a relationship exists. While we are wondering why would such a beautiful woman go out with a guy who perpetually wears sweaters in L.A.? Why does she go for a walk in the middle of the night, in the rain, in downtown Los Angeles to apologise for not wanting to have sex when she is angry for him behaving like an idiot? Why does she break up with him? And isn't this counter to her often stated position that she doesn't believe they are having a relationship?

The old world d├ęcor, unfashionable clothes, rain, overcast weather, grungy buildings, children biking in CBD led me to the erroneous belief that the film was set in some city in the north or north east of the US so the announcement that this was Los Angeles came as a surprise. So perhaps there are parts of L.A. that are not all sunshine, mirror glass, fashionable clothes and given over to cars.

The plot is simple even by romantic comedy standards: Boy is obsessed with gorgeous woman (who he initially and correctly classifies as out of his league). She tells him up front that she's happy to have a bit of fun with him but is not interested in a relationship. He ignores this to his peril. Later she dumps him. He takes it hard. We are not watching this film for the plot.

The supporting cast are barely more than extras with lines to say. Tom gets more cynical towards the end but that is a side effect of depression rather than character development. Summer is more a collection of confusing behaviours than a personality we get to understand. We are not watching this film for its characters.

Even though Zooey Deschanel (Summer) is a wide-eyed beauty who'd turn heads in any company, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tom) is a slightly geeky everyman, I think few would be watching this film for its star appeal. The reasons to watch this film are firstly the way the story is told - which is different enough to be interesting, without being distracting - and secondly for the its contribution to relationship wisdom. Unfortunately there is a confusion of messages in this film:
  • The most obvious: don't date up market.
  • The equally simple: being in love feels great, but it comes with a hell-of-a-hangover.
  • Tom's belief in the "one true love" is out of step with everyone in the film between 10 and 40 which suggests that this belief is considered as fuddy-duddy as the greetings cards Tom writes.
  • A relationship doesn't exist or not exist because you say it does or doesn't, it a description of how two people interact regardless of what they might say or think.
If you role-swap this movie in your head and have a romantic but ordinary girl falling for this feckless hunk, who then dumps her when Miss Perfect comes along, it would come across as a much harsher movie. Having a fall-guy rather than a fall-girl is much more politically correct. So perhaps this film is less extreme than it initially appears.

This is not a great film but it is a film that could give you something to think about or talk about afterwards.

Ian's rating 2/5 Anne's rating 2.5/5