June 24, 2009 10:51 pm

Moved by the slow life

Diego Catano (Juan) and Daniela Valentine in 'Lake Tahoe'

Lake Tahoe
Rudo and Cursi
Year One
Sunshine Cleaning
My Sister’s Keeper
Shirin

Mexico to the rescue. God bless it: it has outlived the Aztecs and the Alamo; it has survived war, earthquake and viruses to keep world cinema healthy in the approach to the silly season. Lake Tahoe and Rudo and Cursi save the week and the first raises it to a Zen height of forlorn exaltation.

Fernando Eimbcke, a name to conjure with if not to try pronouncing, made a comedy of droll helplessness called Duck Season (2004). It was all about adolescents caught in the space between desire and despair: very TS Eliot both in theme and in measured, mandarin pace. But isn’t the best comedy often slow? (See Oliver Hardy’s long-drawn, long-suffering looks to camera.) And aren’t life’s bewilderments – like those that assail young Juan (Diego Cataño) on a long, hot day spent seeking a spare part for his crashed car while meeting, among others, a kung fu-fancying car mechanic, a pretty punk girl (pictured above) and passing friends and relatives who condole Juan on his father’s recent death (dropped late and casually into the story information) – made to defy quick-fix storytelling or gag work?

For the first few minutes the wide screen is composed of consecutive roadscapes or street vistas that Juan walks across one by one, left to right or right to left. The silence shimmers, the suspense grows: will anything actually happen? Yes, after a fashion. Though Juan’s pouting face is set in that 16-year-old no-man’s-land between acne and ecstasy, that rigor vitae of the distrustful auditionee for adulthood, he will fall for the girl – sort of; he will yield to the young mechanic’s invitation to crash a Bruce Lee movie; and near the end he will comfort his younger brother, hiding from grief in a closet. Life moves on, even at those times when you can hardly tell it is moving at all. But that is becoming Eimbcke’s signature charm – the ability to move us without letting motion get in the way of the slow, subtle building of emotion.

For his first film as director, Carlos Cuarón, brother of Alfonso Cuarón, who made Y Tu Mamá También, has been to the ingredients shop. He has bought a pound of scoundrelly charm, an ounce of wit and a ton of Mexican local colour. This includes glimpses of noisy family life, slumdog views of Mexico City and a charlatan wheeler-dealer who turns out to have a golden heart.

Gael Garcia Bernal as Cursi

Yet Rudo and Cursi has enough vitality to transcend its air of formula. As the first product from Cha Cha Cha, a film company formed by the big three of Mexican cinema (Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro), it wants to be both impactful and ambassadorial. The subtitles and good-family morality lectures should ensure a passage to posh arthouses. Meanwhile, Gael García Bernal (pictured) and Diego Luna, star-cast as the banana-plantation brothers who dream of success and fame on the soccer field, act with a wild and grinning panache as if they have been told, “Give it everything or we’ll shoot you.”

Dragged to the capital by a sleazy, slick-haired talent scout (Guillermo Francella), they try to reconcile brotherly loyalty with sibling rivalry, something Cain and Abel found so hard in an earlier story that it must be the ancestral template toyed with here, though Cuarón has fashioned a happier ending.

Cain and Abel. What a coincidence. Or do we critics plant these segues? The Biblical brothers (David Cross and Paul Rudd) appear in Year One, a goodhearted, sometimes funny spoof of early human history. Jack Black and Michael Cera, resembling a Falstaffian brachiosaur and shy velociraptor respectively, flee their Palaeolithic village after a difference of opinion. Their diaspora takes them to a landscape mysteriously peopled with Old Testament celebrities. The sons of Adam; the father-son team of Abraham and Isaac, the former played by Hank Azaria with a gleaming knife and dazzling George C Scott impersonation. Finally, everyone comes to Sodom – Gomorrah being another day (or possibly the setting for the sequel) – where the bad/good jokes crafted by writer-director Harold Groundhog Day Ramis go forth and, despite Sodom’s reputation, multiply.

What a week for tormented siblings. Two more present themselves in Sunshine Cleaning, played by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. The sisters work together as Miss Mops of the crime-scene cleanup, partly as tough exorcism for their grief at ma’s suicide, partly – we suspect as audiences apprehensive of a movie from the producers of Little Miss Sunshine – to calm fears that this will be another piece of comedy/schmaltz about never-say-die daughters going vaudevillian. The plot dithers and zigzags but only because human credibility, helped by excellent acting, has been allowed to prevail over Sundance-institutionalised designer whimsy.

In My Sister’s Keeper the siblings are female and were hatched in Jodi Picoult’s bestselling novel. The subject is donor babies, young Anna (Abigail Breslin) having been produced in vitro to help leukaemic Kate (Sofia Vassilieva). Kate is plied with Anna’s blood and bone marrow – and is promised one of her kidneys – while parents Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric anxiously look on. But at age 11 Anna rebels. Tired of being farmed for body components, she goes to celebrity lawyer Alec Baldwin and says she wants a medical divorce from mum and dad.

The topic is so serious it could have been treated either of two ways: dead straight as docudrama, letting the problem punch its own weight; or high-octane as melodrama, filling our tank till the numbers stop turning. Nick Cassavetes opts for the second, but never turns off the pump. By the end we are screaming to yank our engines away from the forecourt as fuel spills – all that piano music, that gilded lighting, those glycerine tears – threatening a pyre of sense, sensibility and supersensitive subject choice.

Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin is a masterly idea miscarried. Or is it that a notion begging for a natural, full-term delivery got a Caesarean section from a director overanxious to clinch his theme’s nativity while also micro-controlling it?

The Iranian creator of Ten and Taste of Cherry had the idea of watching the responses – smiles, tears, astonishment, looks of rapture or horror – of an audience at an imaginary film. The film-within-film, based on an old Persian romance, flickers away unseen while Kiarostami’s camera records, largely in closeups, the changing faces buffeted by feeling. What a revelation this might have been if the audience had been real and unsuspecting. Instead Kiarostami has hired actresses, some distinguished (including Juliette Binoche), to “do” emotion. Instead of fresh-minted feeling we get mummers’ malarkey. Instead of a study in ambush and unedited adventure, we get archly moulded “spontaneity” and truth tailored for effect.

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