Issue July 22, 2008

Film Reviews

‘Flight of the Red Balloon’ offers kinder, gentler cinema

(Starring Juliette Binoche, Hippolyte Girardot, Song Fang, Simon Iteanu and Louise Margolin. Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. UR; 1:54. LEO Report Card: B+)

There are quieter, more peaceful directors than Hou Hsiao-Hsien, but not many. The Taiwanese director is part of a generation of international filmmakers who have rebelled against Hollywood by making distanced, contemplative films free from excessive camera movements and rapid editing; Hou even eschews close-ups. As Hollywood films become more frenetic, chaotic and murky, these directors provide some clarity. 

This is not to say that his work is overbearingly intellectual or harshly didactic. If anything, his movies are gentle, abstract and occasionally just a bit schmaltzy. If you’re like I am, you occasionally need a movie like his after you’ve seen too many like “The Dark Knight.” (Then again, you sometimes need a movie like “The Dark Knight” after you’ve seen too many of Hou’s films.)

While most American films are about good and evil, Hou’s “The Flight of the Red Balloon” contemplates the nature of filmmaking, globalization and modern life, and harbors a wistful nostalgia for 1950s cinema, in particular Albert Lamorisse’s “The Red Balloon.” If you’ve seen enough recent French movies, you won’t be surprised to find that this movie takes place in Paris and was filmed in French, not the director’s native Taiwanese. Movies about movies and against modernity are pretty much France’s stock-in-trade.

“Balloon” follows characters straddling two worlds. Simon (Simon Iteanu) is a 10-year-old who must decide between his childish imagination and adult certainty. His mother, Suzanne (French screen icon Juliette Binoche), spends her days providing voices to highbrow puppet theater, but she is otherwise overwhelmed by modern life — single motherhood, finances and the bustle of living in a city like Paris are driving her mad. Song (Fang Song) is a Chinese student and Simon’s nanny, an outsider no longer fully Chinese and yet far from being completely French. 

Following Song and Simon through their daily travels is an almost sentient red balloon. (Although it’s meant to be whimsical, I found it rather creepy.) The balloon harkens back to Lamorisse’s influential short film, where it probably represented hope for the future. What does it represent here? An idealized childhood? France’s filmmaking past? Innocence? Maybe all three, maybe none of the above; it’s not terribly important to the appreciation of the film to understand all of its symbolic references. 

More important is Hou’s visual sense. He’s a master of intricately planned shots, full of complementing colors and compositions. He presents them to the audience without calling attention to his accomplishment; it’s almost as if scenes of such ornate, painterly composition occur randomly in nature, and Hou refuses to take credit for them. 

“Balloon” is not a perfect film. While Hou’s presentation is uniquely his, the themes certainly are not (in fact, they’ve just about been beaten to death). But it is a thoughtful, compassionate and beautiful movie, well-acted and calmly paced. And it’s a good antidote not only to the bustle of modern life, but of modern movie-going. —Alan Abbott

•••

‘Dark Knight’ a turning point in superhero genre 

(Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Michael Caine. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Rated PG-13; 2:32. LEO Report Card: A)

Forget what you think you know about superhero movies. Hollywood’s learning curve in defining the genre has just been defied by the “The Dark Knight,” Chris Nolan’s superb sequel to 2005’s “Batman Begins.” Nolan has created an artfully intense, fast-paced and multi-layered crime/suspense drama — a superhero movie for adults.

As the late Heath Ledger’s chilling and riveting Joker tells Christian Bale’s Batman in one memorable scene, “You’ve changed things — forever. There’s no going back.” Nolan has done the same with comic book-inspired cinema.

The film paints a bleak portrait of post-9/11 urban society, with the Joker representing society’s chaotic dark side and our hero engaged in an epic struggle with the good side’s morality and responsibility while he fights to save Gotham City. From the opening scene in which the Joker pulls off a violent bank heist, the film grabs the viewer by the throat and scarcely offers a chance for a breath, as the villain’s schemes of destruction grow greater and deadlier.

Gary Oldman is warm and inspired as police commissioner Jim Gordon, and Aaron Eckhart shines as the main character’s tragic ally/foil, Harvey Dent. The entire supporting cast is excellent, but it is Ledger, in his final completed performance, who hijacks the proceedings from the outset.

Employing dark humor and exhibiting a complete absence of conscience or compassion (a particular nod to modern terrorism), Ledger’s Joker will make viewers alternately laugh nervously and shudder; it is impossible to look away. Meanwhile, Bale plays the lead role as only it can be played: with restraint and aplomb. 

“The Dark Knight” truly is a turning point in the genre; it has broken box-office records already and may even garner Oscar consideration for Ledger, deservedly so. —Kevin Gibson