(Cineplex Store Streaming, November 2018) Somehow, I expected much worse. Few movies deserve the tile of “infamous” but Irréversible is one of them. From the off-kilter opening credits onward, it famously “features” an exceptionally gory death as an opening statement (fire extinguisher plus face; not a good mix and I won’t add more) and revolves around a nine-minute-long rape sequence that’s filmed as one uninterrupted shot that leaves no detail to the imagination nor any place for the viewer to hide. I knew all of this before watching the film and it did take me a while to bring myself to watch it, only spurred to it by an unfortunate need to cross movies from a to-see list. Irréversible is not a fun movie to watch. In fact, it’s about as far away from fun as possible—call it an ordeal, maybe. It doesn’t mince details in portraying a hopelessly nihilistic view of the world. But experiencing the film somehow isn’t as vicious as I was expecting. For one thing, there is an exceptionally clever conceit at play here in showing a traditional revenge movie in ante-chronological order: We see the revenge first, then the hunt for the suspect, then the rape, then the happy first act introducing the characters. The impact is significant: The opening salvo of violence establishes a tone that carries through the hunt, while the rape throws the happy-moment conclusion of the film is disturbing ironic territory knowing what will happen to those characters later on. As repulsive as the film can be in its excesses (did we need to see such graphic gore? Did we need to see the entire rape sequence?), there is a deliberate attempt here to go beyond conventions. You could take the script, rearrange it chronologically, remove the philosophical element, elide the rape, soften the gore and it would be an unremarkable film in-line with much of what cheap exploitative filmmakers create without anyone batting an eye. It would still be conceptually ugly. It would still be an unacceptable celebration of revenge. And it wouldn’t be the same film. I did not like Irréversible and have no plans to ever watch it again. (Hence streaming the film rather than purchasing a physical copy—I don’t want it in my house.) But I have to recognize that it’s a film with conscious intent. It’s disturbing for valid reasons—Monica Bellucci ranks highly in my personal pantheon of sex symbols, and I was honestly distressed to see her (not the character; the actress) be subjected to what she goes through in the movie. I like Vincent Cassel a lot and didn’t like the character he became in the film. (For added mind-bending, consider that Cassel and Bellucci were married while shooting Irréversible.) Screenwriter/director Gaspar Noé has since become just as infamous for equally uncompromising movies (I still have Enter the Void on my shelf of DVDs to watch, and I’m still making excuses not to watch it). Irréversible is a bold movie and I almost hate that it exists. But somehow, it’s not quite the empty exploitation vehicle I was half-expecting. I’m still recommending that you do not watch it.
(In French, On TV, October 2015) Something strange and unpleasant happens during Malena, which starts as the story of a boy’s infatuation with what’s quite obviously presented as the most beautiful woman of his small WW2-era Italian village. The first chunk of the film feels endearing and nostalgic, light and only creepy in the way that young men think back about their first big crushes. The subjective nature of the story being told can sometimes take almost absurdly comic turns (Such as when Malena turns every male head, causes car crashes, sends men in uncontrollable lust) and the gentle rhythm of the film suggests a far different film that the one we then get: Because as soon as Malena becomes a war widow, her situation in the small village society becomes untenable: out of desperation, she turns to prostitution with the fascist elites, something that turns her life into living hell once they are ousted from power. The tragedies don’t stop there, as further cruel twists pile on and definitely sour the film. In retrospect, the story told in Malena is predictable in its own way… just not the one that the film initially suggests. This narrative rug-pulling aside, Malena does leave an impression. Few other actresses than Monica Bellucci could credibly pull off a “most beautiful woman in the world” kind of role, but she makes us believe. The film is usually shot well, clearly mixing subjective sequences and fantasies with the rest of the story, often cruel and mean-spirited. It could have been more enjoyable had it stuck to is comedy beginning, but that’s quite obviously not the story that was meant to be told.
(In theaters, July 2010) There’s a lot of generic familiarity in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but don’t despair yet: Under Jon Turteltaub’s sure-footed direction, genre-aware script and quirky performances, this fantasy film actually manages to save itself from embarrassment. Nicolas Cage fans won’t be disappointed by his portrayal of an eccentric sorcerer, while Jay Baruchel more than holds his own as a sympathetic science nerd turned magician. (Plus: Monica Bellucci, even in a too-brief role.) There is a lot of special-effects eye candy, and as many different magic tricks as the first four Harry Potter movies combined. New York locations are effectively exploited, whereas the editing finds a good pace. But never mind the technical credentials: The real charm of the film is to be found in the script, which correctly assumes that we’ve seen a lot of movies of this type: as a result, a significant portion of the required exposition is sarcastically telescoped. (The best instance of this happens during the obligatory but well-handled car chase, as Cage’s character quickly deals with his apprentice’s questions without even waiting for him to ask them.) The one sequence that really doesn’t fit tonally with the rest of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a too-goofy clean-up scene that pays homage to the Fantasia animated segment of the same title without bothering to rein in the CGI excesses. Both Baruchel and Cage are oddball enough that they can do justice to their respective characters and if their delivery could occasionally be improved, the net effect is a film-long smile. Baruchel, in particular, has an irresistible puppy-dog charm –especially when he comes to enjoy his magical talents. Frankly, it’s hard to resist a protagonist who charges into the final battle shouting something like “I came armed with SCIENCE!” For a film that could have been considerably dourer, there’s a refreshing competence at play in this latest Bruckheimer vehicle that is enough to make us forget about the familiarity of it all.