JDIFF '11 Review Roundup: 'Julia's Eyes,' 'A Somewhat Gentle Man'

by Jessica Kiang
March 8, 2011 12:42 AM
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The Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, aka JDIFF, first inaugurated in 2003, wrapped its packed 11-day run on Sunday 27th February. Our "man" (read: "woman") on the ground, was in attendance - here are some short reviews of just a few of the many films screened.

"Julia’s Eyes" (Los Ojos de Julia)
You know when a filmmaker has transcended his profession and truly become a ‘brand’, when it’s his name that hangs above the title of a film that he probably had minimal involvement in actually making. And so it is now with Guillermo del Toro, the visionary director of the sublime “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the 'Hellboy' movies, because while he is not the director of Spanish-language horror/thriller “Julia’s Eyes” (that honour goes to Guillem Morales, also the co-writer), it is his name that it is being sold on. “Guillermo del Toro presents...” scream the posters, and in this case, as in his previous “presentation” “The Orphanage” it’s a canny marketing tool, giving the film an auteur’s seal of approval, while also promoting del Toro to an almost Hitchcockian-level of name recognition within this particular genre.

And for the most part, “Julia’s Eyes” doesn’t disappoint. While undoubtedly a tad overlong, and a lot more schlocky and lacking in the melancholy resonance that made the “The Orphanage” so effective, it nonetheless delivers some giggly thrills and good old-fashioned gross-out moments (eyeball injections, anyone?), to make for a satisfyingly low-brow night at the movies.

The story follows the prescribed ideal of the “hot blind woman in peril” subgenre, but adds a “twin sisters” angle for maximum soap opera-ness: upon the apparent suicide of her twin, who suffered the same degenerative eye disease that she does, Julia and her husband Isaac come to settle her affairs. Julia (played by “The Orphanage”’s Belen Rueda, with constant visual reference to her amazing boobs) becomes convinced that a (literally) shady man was somehow involved in her sister’s death and, as she starts to lose her own sight, and possibly her mind, a series of connected deaths seem to bear this out.

It’s twisty and turny and some of the plot somersaults don’t nail their landings but if you go with it, you get more than enough fun along the way to overlook the slight letdown that is the rather prosaic ending. “Julia’s Eyes” may not be a classic, but if you need a reason to go, at least it has more wit and invention than most recent Hollywood horrors - the vast majority of which feel, ironically, rather like sticking needles in your eyes. [B]

"A Somewhat Gentle Man" (En Ganske Snill Mann)
If ever there were a film that was simply a testament to one man’s watchability, it’s “A Somewhat Gentle Man.” In it, the just-absolutely-great-in-almost-everything-he-does Stellan Skarsgård -- yes, we have a weird crush -- is in pretty much every single scene and certainly has to carry the entire enterprise, armed with little more than an appalling old-man ponytail and an inherently tragicomic expression. And he does it well, elevating what could easily be pretty standard, laconic Scandinavian fare into something more complex, and wringing genuine laughs of out of pretty bleak circumstances. That the film becomes a character study of any depth at all is amazing since our hero, for the most part, is buoyed along by forces he cannot control or even influence, who reacts rather than acts and who finds himself constantly imposed upon to please the frequently misguided whims and desires of others. In short, for a protagonist, he doesn’t protag a whole lot.

But Skarsgård’s work here, the simple physicality of his presence, his hangdog face, the tiny nuances of timing and expression, make it difficult to lose interest; even when the material feels familiar and the plot developments can be foretold, there is always a pleasure to be derived from the surprise of his performance.

Ulrik is a taciturn ex-con who went to prison for murder and is released to little fanfare having served his time. Once out, his old criminal mentor urges him to commit another dreadful crime when all he really wants is to reconnect with his estranged son, now engaged with a baby on the way, and watch Polish TV. Possibly because he seems such a blank slate, he gets involved with the characters around him who cast him as a player in their own lives and are inevitably disappointed when he doesn’t live up to their self-serving idea of what he is. Something’s got to give, and in a rare cathartic moment of action on Ulrik’s part, it does.

There’s nothing particularly new or groundbreaking here, but plenty to admire in the performances all round and the competent, measured direction by Hans Petter Moland. For all the potential Guy Ritchie glossiness of its premise, it is, in the end, a somewhat gentle film. [B]

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