Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Orphanage

The Kids Are Alright

J.A. Bayona's The Orphanage (El Orfanato) opened Friday at the Landmark Theatre and while my friend Jay Berg's blog quickly characterised it as a "thinking man's ghost story" and an "extremely impressive directorial debut" by first-time director Bayona, that doesn't begin to do justice to this film. Jay neglected to say that this film is FUCKING PHENOMENAL - not just the best supernatural/horror film in recent vintage, and not just the best film I've seen in the past 6 months (at least), but a PERFECT film. As in flawless.
As in incredible Oscar-worthy directing by Bayona - who keeps the audience on the edge of its seat throughout and doesn't make a false step anywhere - and a shoo-in nom for Best Actress by the one woman show known as Belen Rueda (pictured right, who was last seen in 2004's The Sea Inside), not to mention great work by the child actor who plays her son Simon and a wonderful cameo by Geraldine Chaplin. No wonder Pan's Labryinth director Guillermo del Toro executive produced the film. Heck, even the opening credits are terrific. In fact, I'm surprised Jay only gave this 3 stars to, say, 4 in his review of Atonement, which he called a "masterpiece."

Based on the rave reviews Atonement received (not to mention 7 Academy Award nominations), I killed an hour having lunch across the street at Whole Foods (I don't recommend it, BTW - the chi-chi frou-frou food varieties there include trendy brown rice-wrapped sushi with wasabi in prepackaged squeeze packs!) and came back to catch a matinee of Atonement at the Landmark. It's a good movie - don't get me wrong - but nothing new under the sun. The Brits are masters of these pretty period pieces, this one only adding a touch of the perverse with its sexual scandal - but nothing that couldn't play on PBS on a Sunday night. Keira Knightly is gorgeous to look at for two hours, but where's the stretch in this role from Pride and Prejudice? (By the way, I never knew Kiera was so flat-chested; nothing wrong with that, but couldn't they have at least given her bathing suit a little padding in the pool scenes? I mean, she looked like David Bowie in a one-piece.)

I should have know that my movie-going experience had peaked with The Orphanage. When my girlfriend and I stopped next door at Starbucks to get something to drink, I was greeted by the glib (and unsolicited) familiarity of the barrista-automaton who chirped "Welcome to Starbucks ladies, would you care for any pastries?"

"Ladies?," I stammered? I felt like saying, dude, I have a square jaw, big nose and a high forehead, if you think I'm a chick maybe you need to stop picking up transexual tricks after hours on Calvert Street, but the babbling barrista didn't miss a beat, glissando-ing into his next prepared text about the specials awaiting us. Whatever. If I hadn't gotten a Starbucks gift card for Christmas, I wouldn't even be in here, I fumed to myself.

Once inside the Landmark, I was similarly peeved that pictures that receive this kind of press inevitably attract middle-aged suburban types who are not typically movie goers, being rather amateur cineastes out to jump on the bandwagon of the latest "hot ticket" at the local cineplex - no doubt after reading about it in People or Entertainment Weekly. But while play-acting at cinema culture, they forget the only rule one need follow when the lights go down: that is, SHUT THE FUCK UP!

Cinema silence is golden.

Thus we made the regretable decision to sit behind two hicks from the sticks, a voracious Tom Bosley-lookalike schlub and his over-aggressive yenta wife (who almost cut me off at the knees rushing in for her seat). Tom Bosley spent the first half-hour loudly consuming his popcorn (I timed him), which he might as well have attached to his face like a feedbag given the way he inhaled it like a pig at the trough, only coming up for air to loudly ask his wife questions about the plot or to have a choking fit. Don't these meat puppets realize they're not at home in from of their boob tube?, I muttered under my breath to my girlfriend. You know the type of Hollywood blockbuster bandwagon bumpkins I'm talking about, the kind who only go to see Chicago or Hairspray (the remake!) and who are prone to blurt out such endearing bon mots as "Who's that?" and "What did he say?" or (commenting on the scenery) "Isn't that just beautiful?" or "Where's that?" Ack!

After an hour or so of this, I was so vexed that I grabbed my grirlfriend and got up to move. We made a mad dash down to another section where I had spied two empty seats. I thought we were safe at last, but it turned out the woman next to me was with yet another slow-witted hubby who had to have every line of dialog or plot development explained to him. Out Loud. Oh geeze, I thought, can't anyone wait to discuss the film until afterwards. It's only 90 minutes to two hours in most cases. And what is it with these male bimbos who get dragged to romantic/arthouse films by their wives or girlfriends - do they have a chip on their shoulder because they're missing the NFL playoffs? Do they purposely sit there and behave like pouty, ill-mannered children just because they're being forced to watch a chick flick? (Yes, the audience was predominantly women -including me, in the eyes of certain Starbucks barristas.)

But I grinded my teeth and toughed it out, and I liked Atonement a lot. But of the two films I saw that day, it was no contest. If the two films were women, I'd say Atonement had a pretty enough face, but The Orphanage was the real knockout. But The Orphanage is a beauty with brains; more than a just an entertaining ghost story, it's spiritual in a way certain Spanish and Asian horror films are: that is, it asks the audience to reconsider the way we look at death and loss. Unlike American horror films, where good and evil are as obvious as black and white, many international ghost/fantasy stories (Del Torro's The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth spring instantly to mind, as well as numerous Japanese supernatural horror tales, like Hideo Nakata's Ringu and Dark Water) don't so much try to scare us as ask us to try to understand the occult and the unknown. To quote what Geraldine Chaplin's psychic character tells Belen Rueda in a key Orphanage scene: "Seeing isn't believing. It's the other way around." In other words, you can't see what you don't believe; believe and you can see - and find what you're looking for (be it a missing child, peace of mind, or a final resting place).

Anyway, arted-out by a long day at the movies, I stayed in Saturday night and watched the Women of Ninja Warriors marathon on the G4 cable channel. This Japanese game show-cum-sports challenge (known in Japan as Sasuke) is the equivalent of Fear Factor meets American Gladiators, only with mostly ordinary Japanese women. But everyone, even the losers, is always nothing less than polite and gracious. So unlike the loud-mouthed louts at Atonement.

Related Links:
"Gone Missing" (Anthony Lane's New Yorker review of The Orphanage)


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