An exhilarating return to form for Peter Greenaway, Nightwatching is easily the cult director´s best film since 1989´s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover – though, to be fair, outside of an entry in the Tulse Luper saga, I´ve yet to see much of the director´s work in this century, much of which remains unavailable outside of festival screenings. Extravagant, stagey, faux-intellectual, and persistently analytical, Nightwatching is, like all of Greenaway´s films, not for everybody. And yet, this story of Rembrandt and his famous painting The Night Watch is unexpectedly touching, and possibly the most accessible film the director has made to date.
Martin Freeman stars as the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, master of a burgeoning household and a happily married expectant father. Wife Saskia (Eva Birthistle) urges the painter to do a commissioned group portrait of the Amsterdam Musketeer Militia, to which Rembrandt reluctantly agrees. Soon a son is born, his wife dies, and Rembrandt discovers a conspiracy among the Militia that has lead to the death of one of their members. Diving deeper into the lives of his subjects, Rembrandt delivers a piece that indicts them in murder and more with every intricate detail. Controversy ensues when the Militia cannot simply reject the painting and lend credence to Rembrandt´s claims, but instead seek to settle their score on a more personal level.
It´s all historical poppycock, of course, with Greenaway taking delight in exploring these possible origins of The Night Watch, exemplified in a key exhibition scene in which the painting is deconstructed first by the subjects it portrays, and then by an art critic. But the heart of the film lies in biographical exploration of Rembrandt and his relationships with wife Saskia, nursemaid Geertje (Jodhi May), and finally (and most poignantly) mistress Hendrickje (Emily Holmes); while the intricate conspiratorial details occasionally detract from this, they offer their own intellectual rewards. It´s like Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code brought to an entirely new level: you may be asking yourself “who cares?” regarding this seemingly irrelevant conspiracy, and well, that´s kinda the point: the painting and its artist have long outlived the relevancy of its subjects and origins.
Freeman (The Hitchhiker´s Guide to the Galaxy, The Good Night) is an absolute revelation as the painter, carrying the weight of the film on his shoulders. Other actors fail to make much of an impression, though the villainous elite are effectively slimy. Toby Jones is wasted in a minor role.
A visually rich experience, magnificent use of light and shadows drenches the film in the palate of Rembrandt, particularly the piece at the focus of the movie; lush cinematography by Reinier van Brummelen is a welcome return to the visual feel of Greenaway films of old. Beautiful, haunting music by Polish composer Wlodzimierz Pawlik recalls the pulsating Michael Nyman scores that enraptured the director´s best work throughout the 1980s.
A trenchant first hour is occasionally difficult to follow, layered with an abundance of intertwining characters and plotlines. If you can make it past this, however, you´ll be richly rewarded.
A riveting slam-bang action flick, Taken is the kind of movie you might expect to see from a Bruce Willis or Jet Li. But no, here´s Liam Neeson, Mr. Oskar Schindler, in brutal hand-to-hand combat, dispensing of a countless number of bad guys and kicking all kinds of ass. It´s inspired casting that lends some credence to this otherwise routine thriller, a French production directed by Pierre Morel and produced and co-written by Luc Besson. Riveting most of the way and drawn from the same pool as Besson-produced actioners like District 13, Kiss of the Dragon and Danny the Dog (the latter two Jet Li vehicles).
Neeson stars as retired CIA agent Bryan, estranged from ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who now live with Lenore´s current husband, wealthy businessman Stuart (Xander Berkeley). Kim wants to take a summer trip to Paris with friend Amanda, but as a 17-year-old minor she needs consent from her father. After some conniving, Bryan reluctantly agrees. Of course, the minute they´re off the plane, Kim and Amanda are targeted by slave traders in Paris. A frenzied phone call with Bryan moments before they´re abducted sends Dad into action to save his daughter from the sex trade.
With the aid of his ex-CIA buddies and Stuart´s connections, Bryan learns his daughter´s kidnappers are Albanian Mafia, and immediately boards a plane to Paris. Once there, we´re treated to one long chase sequence that takes hold and never lets up as he works his way up the sex trade food chain. This is no-holds-barred stuff, with Bryan tearing up the streets of Paris, killing in cold blood, and shooting innocent civilians – everything he needs to do to get his daughter back, and fast. It´s believable from the word go thanks to Neeson´s grounded performance; only some climatic scenes involving the Hostel II-like bidding for young women, and the elite customers who buy them, ring false.
Acting takes a backseat to action, and outside of Neeson´s convincing hero we´re left with few characters to care about, one way or the other; in particular, film lacks that especially nasty baddie who we want to get what´s coming to them. Also: Grace feels far too old to be playing the 17-year-old daughter.
Director Morel keeps everything moving at a lightning clip, fast enough that we don´t have time to consider plot implausibilities or question Bryan´s actions. Cinematography drenches everything in blues, recalling Paul Greengrass´ last two Bourne films; in fact, some have dubbed this The Bourne Retirement.
An immensely overrated teen pregnancy dramady, Jason Reitman´s Juno was a favorite at film festivals and award ceremonies, and among most audiences last year. Like the director´s previous Thank You for Smoking, the film tackles a controversial subject and admirably explores it, never taking sides or forming a strong moral stance and becoming a polemic. But a barrage of pop-culture references without context and a nails-on-chalkboard lead performance by Ellen Page turn this into an episode of Family Guy without the laughs.
Page stars as the titular character, Juno MacGuff, pregnant and undecided about what to do about it. Father-to-be Paulie (Michael Cera) doesn´t quite know what to make of it, nor do Juno´s loving parents (Alison Janney and J.K. Simmons). After a visit to an abortion clinic leaves her cold, Juno decides to have the baby, and give it up for adoption. But the parents have to be right. So she takes out an ad in the local Pennysaver and finds the perfect yuppie parents for her unborn child: suburbanites Mark (Jason Bateman) and Bren (Jennifer Garner). Trouble ensues when Juno gets to know them better, and Mark begins to have doubts about his marriage and impending fatherhood.
Diablo Cody´s screenplay somehow won an Oscar, but it´s the biggest problem I had with the film. By turns insincere, illogical, and unsatisfying, I failed to feel any kind of emotional connection with these characters (with the possible exception of Bren), who consistently put me off with their ‘clever´ dialogue. Juno has been called smart, funny, charming, and witty, but no – like its main character, it only thinks it is.
This is painfully evident during a scene in which Juno and Mark discuss grunge music and horror films, in particular directors Dario Argento and Herschell Gordon Lewis: the names hang in the air, weighty, obscure references that neither the actors nor the screenwriter know what to do with. It´s anti-Tarantino; a direct ripoff of the scene in American Beauty where Kevin Spacey and Wes Bentley get high and recall vague memories of Stuart Gordon´s Re-Animator, only here Cody makes the mistake of bringing the reference into the foreground, where we await a punchline – or even a knowing wink – that never comes.
The film will live and die by Cody´s script and Page´s lead performance, which I found absolutely grating. I still applaud director Reitman´s intentions and the film is certainly worth seeing – you´ll likely have a different reaction than I did.
Also opening: Kozí příběh – Pověsti staré Prahy (showtimes), a CGI animated film from director Jan Tománek. Screening in Czech, without subtitles.
And: don’t miss this year’s Music on Film – Film on Music (MOFFOM) festival, which takes place at cinemas Evald, Svetozor, and Lucerna from October 16th to the 20th. Highlights include documentaries on Pete Seeger, The Who, Brian Wilson, and many others.