This Week's New Releases
Notes on a Scandal
dir. Richard Eyre
An old person falls in love with a much younger person. The young person betrays the love of the old person. The old person resolves to revenge the young person's betrayal, and in the end the lives of both are destroyed by a love that turned into a poison of hate. This story was exploited and exhausted by Lolita. However, the lack of originality in Notes on a Scandal, which is directed by Richard Eyre and based on a novel by Zoe Heller, is not shamefully hidden but instead is revived by a reformulation of the old person (a crusty lesbian played brilliantly by Judi Dench), and the young person (a carefree beauty played perfectly by Cate Blanchett). The result is a vampire narrative in form and substance.
Set in a London secondary school called St. George's, Notes on a Scandal is about an arrogant, unloved, and bitter history teacher. For her, the state of British education, which reflects the state of the society, has lost its center and has surrendered traditional European values to vague and empty A≠merican ones. The school is multiracial, progressive, and postmodern; the history teacher is white, conservative, and premodern. She is an island of the old world refusing to be submerged by the new order of urban slang, grime music, and global culture. Like Humbert Humbert, the history teacher narrates the story; we see the events from her point of view.
Suddenly a pretty little bird lands on the school. She teaches art, is from a much higher station of life than the narrator, and fully embraces the new and mixed energies of 21st-century youth culture. With icy precision, the narrator breaks down the new art teacher: She identifies her exact class ("bohemian bourgeoisie") and the values that spring from that specific class position. The history teacher is a nasty piece of work. But gradually we realize that she is nothing more than a sheep dressed up like a wolf. The history teacher falls in love with the art teacher in a very hard way and becomes more and more possessive. The art teacher plays along, invites the history teacher to her home, and we learn that she is married to a much older man ("a crumbling patriarch"), and has a daft son and ordinary daughter.
The steadily escalating story suddenly becomes electrified when the history teacher discovers that the art teacher is having an affair with one of her students, a mentally slow but physically fit boy from a working-class family. The boy has a little talent: He likes to draw pictures of his pretty art teacher. "I can see why she liked him," says the stern history teacher. "Those of her class are amazed when a monkey walks out of the jungle with a martini in its hand." And here is the point on which the plot turns: The history teacher decides to use her knowledge of the art teacher's transgression to finally and forever trap the bird of paradise.
This is the picture of an absolute vampire: Her fingers are crooked, her love is morbid, and she refuses to be sustained by anything else but the freshest blood, the highest beauty. And Blanchett has the most beautiful lips in all of movieland. Going for the kill, Dench satanically grows from a crusty history teacher into a god of her passion. She is a giant tearing the world apart for the blood she needs to survive. The wreckage piles up, the music swells, and we enter the region of opera. If it weren't for one editing mistake near the end—a failed attempt to show the enormous gulf between the subject and the object of its desire—then Notes on a Scandal would have deserved a standing ovation. CHARLES MUDEDE
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
dir. Tom Tykwer
Author Patrick Süskind's novel Perfume has flummoxed many a prospective filmmaker, with such heavyweights as Kubrick and Scorsese reportedly circling the project before deeming it unfilmable. Finally, the task fell to German director Tom (Run, Lola, Run) Tykwer. Does he do the book justice? And how.
Set in a decidedly stank 18th-century France, Süskind's narrative tells the tale of a penniless near mute (newcomer Ben Whishaw) born with a sense of smell akin to that of an irradiated bloodhound. After learning the tricks of the trade from a has-been perfumer (Dustin Hoffman), he sets out to create the ultimate scent, a concoction that requires the use of, oh, a few dozen female corpses. Co-writer Tykwer's screenplay retains the most striking aspects of the source material (often verbatim, courtesy of an intermittent voice-over by the priceless John Hurt) and improves on it in others, particularly in concocting a compelling motive for the rising body count. Most importantly, he keeps the essence which made the novel such a scabrous, compelling read: namely, the feeling that, no matter how loathsome the protagonist's actions, we still somehow want to see the sick bastard get away with it.
Tykwer and Süskind's shared fugue may end up offending as many as it entrances, but space and this publication's impeccable taste forbid getting into much more of the grotty details. Suffice it to say that, even in January, this deliriously loopy black comedy just may be the film of the year. ANDREW WRIGHT
Read Andrew Wright's interview with Tykwer.
dir. Richard LaGravenese
Aren't white people awesome? And brave? Isn't it cool how we're always, like, going to the inner city and teaching minorities about tolerance and feelings and how to read? And when those crazy minos won't stop gangbangin', we're all, "Who here likes Too-Pack?" and then they're all, "I hate white people," but we're all, "What—are you trippin'?" and then we all have a good laugh. God, it's so great being white and hilarious. "My badness!"
Holy shit. This movie has got to be joking. In the early '90s, things were not so great in Los Angeles. People were punching and yelling and killing and ganging. People were pissed. Enter Erin Gruwell (Hilary Swank), a first-year English teacher at the newly integrated Woodrow Wilson High School. White, terrified, and annoying, Gruwell is determined to get through to her students (black, Latino, AND Asian "gangbangers"—can you imagine!?), and she does it by introducing them to "the most famous gang in history." Hitler's gang. "This gang would put you all to shame," she gushes. "Take over neighborhoods? That's nothing to them. They took over countries." Now you're speaking our language, Miss G!
Hilary Swank sucks. She is homely and her teeth are enormous. Everything she says is embarrassing ("When you're dead, do you think it's going to matter that you were an Original Gangster?"). Gang life in Freedom Writers is a cartoon, and the "girls of different races blow-dry their bangs the same way" montage is hardly illuminating. Apart from a perfectly nice soundtrack and the line, "I hate white people on sight," this movie is a waste of time.
Obviously the real Erin Gruwell (Freedom Writers is a true story) is a great teacher and a great lady, and America's public schools are dying for want of people like her. But STILL—couldn't it have been a documentary? Do we need the 4,000th inbred incarnation of a story that was a cliché before it was even born? Couldn't we have aborted this one?
At least now I know what to say the next time I meet a room of angry minorities: "How many of you have seen Boyz n the Hood?" High five! White people in the hizzouse! LINDY WEST
dir. Chris Noonan
In this dotty biopic, Renée Zellweger plays the eponymous authoress Beatrix Potter, and thoroughly botches the job. Cute and ruddy, Zellweger gulps air like a chipmunk tucking away nuts, squeaks and squirms her way into a simulacrum of abashed pleasure, twinkles her lidless eyes, and generally interprets Victorian spinsterhood as an unnaturally prolonged case of the cutes. The result is ghastly, like a bad facelift or wrinkles on a porn actress who'd been billed "barely legal."
The thin plot—Miss Potter writes Peter Rabbit, amasses wealth, rebels from parents, and falls in love once or twice—provides one other example of a spinster: Emily Watson, as Millie, Miss Potter's publisher's sister. It's a relief when Millie makes her entrance, but it's also jarring: Watson's lunatic blue eyes and disheveled wisps of hair are far too Gothic for a family film. But her charm, such as it is, is displayed only briefly, and then it's back to Miss Potter's baby cheeks.
As an excuse to animate Beatrix Potter's creations (nicely executed by Passion Pictures), the producers have decided that Potter had an overly personal relationship with her drawings of bunnies and frogs and puddle ducks. Miss Potter hallucinates her little avatars acting naughty or agitated whenever she's inclined the same way. The animation is cute, but the live-action commingling is distressing. Why couldn't these drawn animals be like every other inanimate object in movieland, coming alive only when their owner turns her back? It would have made a much sweeter movie. ANNIE WAGNER