Wednesday, February 3, 2010

DVD Review: Birth

There's a great scene in Birth where Nicole Kidman's character Anna is sitting at a symphony and director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) just keeps the camera on her, letting the audience watch Anna's eyes as she tries to process the ridiculous notion that a 10 year-old boy is the reincarnation of her dead husband. It's a powerful moment in a film that contains layers upon layers of odd metaphysical goings-on. It's just one example of where Glazer and his screenwriter Jean-Claude Carri̬re succeed in evoking the emotional slow burn that Kubrick did so brilliantly. Another aspect I liked about the film is that it didn't feel the need to talk these complicated themes to death. Instead Glazer's film is more an adult fairy tale about endless love with a heartbreakingly ironic coda. The use of a French screen writer and a French composer, Alexandre Desplat, proves that Glazer wanted to make an adult, French-like film Рwith its long takes of beneath-the-surface action and talky scenes Рthat teeters on the sexually absurd. The musical score is one of the highlights as the action always moves effortlessly (thanks to the fine editing) with the music. The film looks amazing, too, as DP Harris Savides (Zodiac) paints the film in drab, muted colors and sometimes appropriately drenches his characters in shadows.

Is the film as bad as the reception it received in Venice in 2004 (where it was booed out of the building)? Not at all. Is the film one of the most underrated and misunderstood films of the decade as "The Guardian" claims it is? I guess. It's an underrated film, that's for sure, but I'm not sure underrated is synonymous with brilliant. Given the polarizing reaction towards the film when it was released I would say that I feel a little weird for being so indifferent towards it. The above mentioned successes of the film don't necessarily erase the film's flaws, most glaringly the casting of Cameron Bright as the 10 year-old Sean. His performance is almost as annoying as Haley Joel Osmet's from The Sixth Sense as he mumbles and mopes his way through his lines and struggles to make them not laughable. It's the only part of Glazer's "fairy tale" that I didn't buy. I understand why the director had him deliver his lines that way, as it's appropriate that he sound like he's in a trance of some kind, but I grew tired of it after about 30 minutes. It's something that ruined a lot of the film for me because Sean was such a central part of the story.

Kidman and Danny Houston are perfect in their roles, especially Kidman, who I admit I don't always like. The way she internalizes Anna's emotions is a remarkable piece of acting…especially in the symphony scene, but more so in the scenes where she has to look the 10 year-old in the eyes and pretend she's looking at her dead husband. I thought I was watching a really bad skit at times, but Kidman sold it, and made it worthwhile investing in her character.

Birth is certainly a lot better than the previews made it seem back in 2004 (mostly because they tried to sell it as some kind of weird ghost story), but I don't think it's as good as a lot of people who constructed their end-of-the-decade lists made it out to be. Underrated, sure, but again that doesn't mean it's a masterpiece. There is some impressive filmmaking going on here, and Glazer successfully elicits the kind of Kubrickian mood that he's going for, but I just couldn't buy into the some of the scenes in the middle of the movie. Birth has impressive and powerful bookends – especially the staggeringly great finale on the beach – but its bogged-down middle is something that nearly sinks the film with the poor acting of Bright. That being it was more than worth the 90 minutes (especially thanks to that musical score) and I'm glad I watched the film and took the advice of Tony Dayoub, who listed it on his best of 2004 list, because aesthetically it's about as well executed as a film can be…I just wish I could have bought that story.














  1. Hey, Kevin, great post! I saw this when it first came and can't remember it all that well. But, Harris Savides is one of my favorite DPs working today, and I remember being absolutely blown away by his work here. I'll have to re-visit this one at some point.

  2. The movie has this dead serious aura to it all through out, and it is a deliberately slower paced film, beautiful shots and composition I agree. The movie had me going at times...I wasnt really sure if the kid was or if he wanst.

  3. the atmosphere of this film is really incredible but there are indeed a lot of flaws. love the music.

  4. I guess I liked this film more than you did, Kevin as I definitely fall in the "it's a masterpiece" camp.

    Honestly, the acting of Bright doesn't bother me and the film kinda addresses his annoying nature in that great scene where his character keeps kicking Danny Huston's chair and then he finally loses it and proceeds to throttle the character. After all the stuff that Huston's character has been put through up to that point I was surprised that he had shown so much restraint! heh.

    Seriously, I think that this film is brilliant because all of its components (the script, the cast, the cinematography, score, etc.) draws you into this fascinating story that works on several levels. Is this kid really Kidman's husband reincarnated? Is this whole thing really just Kidman's fear of getting re-married? The film wrestles with all sorts of fascinating themes and leaves things with just enough ambiguity so that you find yourself thinking about what you say long after it's over. How many films nowadays do that?

    At any rate, I've always felt that this was the best Kubrick film that he never made but it doesn't feel like a shameless imitation either which quite an accomplishment.

  5. Jeffrey:

    Savides is amazing, isn't he? His work in the almost all-digital Zodiac is some of my favorite of the past decade.

  6. TFC:

    The deliberate pace brilliantly matched the film's was the narrative I had trouble with at times. It's definitely a Kubrick-type film, the only problem with that is that you have to confident a director that the material is going to hold up when there's all that "down time" to think about what's going on. There were moments, like the symphony scene, where it worked brilliantly...and there were other moments where all I kept thinking about was how ridiculous this supposedly smart woman is being and how annoying the kid is.

  7. Mr.Jeffrey:

    I agree with about the atmosphere and especially the music. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

  8. J.D.:

    The film's subtextual themes are definitely interesting, and I was blown away by how much I liked Kidman -- an actress I almost always have problems with -- in this role. She hasn't been this good since Eyes Wide Shut...which is kind of funny because as you state this film is the closest thing we've had to Kubrick since his death. There is an underlying sense of dread (is that the right word?) in this film, and I think that's what kept me going...I just couldn't by the child actor or some of the stuff in the middle. But I think that the brilliant execution of the film's score and look outweigh the film's flaws. The ambiguity of the film had me up until a certain point. As I mentioned above the symphony scene is probably the most perfect scene in the movie, but subsequent scenes where we're left to read the characters' faces and try to understand what they're feeling left me feeling cold and sometime bored.

    However, if other people who haven't seen this movie were like me and avoided this initially because of how silly it looked then those people really need to give this film a shot. It looks and sounds amazing.

  9. Kevin, yeah I really like almost everything Savides does. I like his experiments with Van Sant (ELEPHANT and GERRY) and his more traditional work with Van Sant (MILK and FINDING FORRESTER). I also think THE YARDS looks phenomenal, and I remember enjoying what he did with AMERICAN GANGSTER, as well. In my book, he's one of the best around right now.

    As for BIRTH, I can't remember if it's the beginning or not, but I remember liking the shots of the guy jogging. The look of that really jumped out at me.

    And, yes, as mentioned, I remember the music being quite remarkable, too.

  10. Jeffrey:

    The jogging scene is the very beginning. I remember being struck by it to. A great way to introduce your film. That moment, mixed with the score, was something I wasn't prepared for.

    I love The Yards! One of my favorite Gray films even if it is flawed as hell. There's just something about it that I love.

    Also, I remember watching Gerry with a roommate while really really drunk. THAT was quite the experience.

  11. Kevin J. Olson:

    "I was blown away by how much I liked Kidman -- an actress I almost always have problems with"

    Y'know, I used to have the same problem with Kidman as well but looking back at the 2000s, she had a pretty good run of roles. Even if the film was flawed, she turned in a pretty great performance. She kicked things off with pretty solid work in MOULIN ROUGE! and the extremely underrated THE OTHERS but I felt was overrated in THE HOURS. Fantastic in DOGVILLE (surviving Lars von Trier is an accomplishment in and of itself). I actually quite liked her work in COLD MOUNTAIN but admittedly she was starred in some real clunkers too (THE STEPFORD WIVES, BEWITCHED) but bounced back with FUR, which is a really interesting film and a fascinating take on a biopic.

    A lot of people slam THE INVASION but I actually quite enjoyed it and the film uses Kidman's "icy" rep. as an actress to its advantage. I also liked her MARGOT AT THE WEDDING and how she refused to play an easily likable character, in fact she played a very flawed one. I thought that her rapport with Jennifer Jason Leigh was quite good.

    THE GOLDEN COMPASS and AUSTRALIA are big budget easy targets but I actually quite like both films. I think that GOLDEN COMPASS got a real raw deal and was subjected to meddling from the studio but still holds up IMO. And, I am a fan of AUSTRALIA as Baz Luhrmann's blatant attempt to recreate the visual splendor and scale of GONE WITH THE WIND for his home country.

    At any rate, if you look at the films she's done in the last 10 years, there is quite a lot of variety and she took a lot of chances. I admire her for that and her willingness to fail instead of going the easy route and starring in all kinds of predictable studio films.

  12. Not even I would go as far as to say the film is a masterpiece. But it has a potency other films lack, and it grows on you with each subsequent viewing. The first viewing left me cold much the same way any initial viewing of a Kubrick film does. That's something I already factor in when I see a Kubrick film or even any post-ALI Michael Mann film. I expect those to grow on me with subsequent viewings. I never really thought this one would, but... here we are. It made it onto my top 10 list that year.

    And for all the coldness one feels the first time one sees it, I have often been overwhelmed with emotion for all the characters (even Huston's) in later viewings. Cameron Bright really didn't bother me in the least. And I was impressed with Anne Heche, and especially Peter Stormare. I've never seen him play so straight in a film. In his own way, he reminds me of another Kubrick semi-regular, Timothy Carey. And I always like Kidman.

    The cinematography is great. But Desplat's score is sublime, and with such deliberately affected flat performances, most of the film's emotional heart is centered in the score.

    I used to doubt the film's ambiguity for a long time. I thought the plot was all sewed up by the explanation given for Sean's intimate knowledge of his so-called previous incarnation. Then I read Roger Ebert's review and he postulates an interesting theory which I think relies on a detail that is almost too subtle, yet key to preserving the mystery. How could Sean know the exact spot where the previous Sean collapsed and died if there is no way that appears in the letters?

  13. J.D.:

    I forgot about The Others. I did like her in that. I see what you're saying with her not relying on roles that are primiarliy things like Bewithched...but there's still something I can't stand about her. I don't's weird but some actors/actresses just don't jive with me. I think we all have actors/actresses we feel that way about.

    I haven't seen Fur or The Invasion but I couldn't stand Moulin Rouge or Cold Mountain, although the former is more due to my hatred for Baz Luhrman movies than Nicole Kidman movies.

    Anyway...I'll have to give those other two films a shot.

  14. Tony:

    I know that you and a lot of others champion the film because of the subsequent viewings, and I got the sense as I watching the movie that it was one that would stay with me for awhile and require a second or third viewing to really understand everything.

    I'm glad you bring up the Ebert quote because I was thinking about that plot point while I was watching the movie. Is it merely a lapse in the storytelling, a badly missed plot hole? Or is it left in there on purpose, meant to mess with our minds even more and add an extra layer of ambiguity onto the film's already ambiguous ending? I'll go with the latter since I think that Glazer and co. were too meticulous in every formal aspect of the film (in the way Kubrick was with his films, and you're right, it almost always takes multiple viewings to appreciate a Kubrick flick)to let something like that slip by them.

    It was a film experience I was glad to have, and I'll look forward to watching it again should I ever run across it on cable or should I feel the need to add it to the queue again.

    I'm glad you put the film on your list, Tony, because it forced me to watch something that I initially thought looked ridiculous.

  15. I think you answered your own question about whether Glazer was deliberate in his choice to include that plot point.

    I would also add that the first scene of Sean running, in addition to being a kick-ass opening for the film, is too striking and self-conscious in what is by and large a subtle film to be anything but a clever signpost to be recalled later when young Sean zeroes in on the spot where old Sean died.

  16. Incredible movie. The review is also nice as the movie is. I have already seen it four times and wanted to watch it again. Hope it comes on TV channel or else I have to buy a DVD.