Wednesday, August 25, 2010

May Movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2008)

Five films that should have been better, and one that could hardly be better at all.

My Blueberry Nights is the first American movie by the fine and inventive Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, with singer Norah Jones in her first acting role. She plays a bit of a lost soul who bonds with New York café owner Jude Law and then goes on a road trip, limited here to mini narratives in Tennessee (with David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz) and Arizona (Natalie Portman). Jones’ tentative performance seems well in tune with the director’s own approach; both reticent here, touching some conventional notes and some quirkier ones, but never coming in for an emotional or thematic kill. Wong reportedly spent some time feeling out real American locations, but for the most part the film could have been shot overseas on sound stages – it’s a road movie with no apparent taste for the road or the detritus on its borders. This isn’t necessarily a criticism though if you can succumb to the gauzy mood; I just about could, but you get the overwhelming sense of a rather bemused director, camouflaging and filigreeing an essentially inert piece of work.

The Visitor

The Visitor, written and directed by Tom McCarthy, is a nicely crafted but definitely overpraised film. Richard Jenkins plays Walter Vale, a bored, recessive college professor who finds an illegal immigrant couple living in his New York apartment; he initially throws them out but then tells them they can stay. When the male, Tarek, is arrested and taken to a detention centre, Walter finds something to care about for the first time in years. McCarthy’s film moves deliberately and pristinely, with not a cinematic hair out of place. The thesis seems somewhat obvious – how America’s post 9-11 heavy-handedness toward immigrants turns the country away from its better nature and denies it a richer cultural fabric. But the film would be a more challenging liberal text if Tarek wasn’t the happiest, most inspiring soul imaginable, and one who comes with a hot widowed mother. Jenkins is getting a lot of attention for his performance, but there too McCarthy eschews much complexity, pushing the actor into a rather clichéd minimalism. The nicest touch is Walter’s fascination with Tarek’s drum playing, but this too mostly seems like only-in-the-movies stuff.

David Mamet’s Redbelt is the latest in the director’s odd apparent project to prove himself much plainer a filmmaker than a playwright – another smart but limited creation with good tricky plotting, dollops of patented exchanges, and a spareness that’s intriguing for a while but ultimately underwhelming. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a jujitsu teacher, highly capable and noble but struggling to keep his studio afloat, drawn into a complicated series of events involving a Hollywood action star (Tim Allen), a troubled lawyer (Emily Mortimer) who accidentally shoots a bullet through his window, a stolen watch, and in the background to all this, the sport’s escalating commercialism. It’s only when you try to recount the plot afterwards that you fully realize how good Mamet is at spinning it all out, until that is it’s time to start steering toward home and then the big bus doesn’t seem so nimble on the curves (the last ten minutes almost feel as if someone else was drafted to pull all the strands into some kind of ending). Even at its most successful it never seems like more than a B-movie, and of course that’s an honorable place on the spectrum, except that the time when such genre exercises could seem truly subversive and instructive has generally passed.

Son Of Rambow

Son Of Rambow is set in the early 80’s; pre-DV cameras and of course long pre-YouTube, when cinema was still a citadel and video a dream around the edges. In the UK, a BBC kids show called Screen Test held an annual competition for narrative home movies; I remember watching the show, but in my circumstances (financial constraints; parental skepticism, general cluelessness) I could never have imagined it meaning anything tangible to me. Now I wish I’d had more wherewithal, and Garth Jennings’ movie hit me as a slight rebuke. It’s built around two unfulfilled boys who collaborate on a Screen Test entry - a sequel to Sylvester Stallone’s First Blood – marked by cheesy home-made stunts and of course mounds of heart and quirky artistic integrity (the movie is a transatlantic cousin to the recent Be Kind Rewind, although it cheats a bit more). One of the boys belongs to a religious group that’s kept him from watching TV or movies; he loses his cinematic virginity when he accidentally views a pirated Rambo video, and his imagination runs wild. It’s a cute idea, and has a highly honorable resonance; the esteemed and austere director Robert Bresson raved late in life about (presumably) his first viewing of a Bond movie, praising the “cinematic writing” of For Your Eyes Only.

Son Of Rambow doesn’t evoke Bresson in any other sense, being ultimately a bit too formulaic (and having a silly view of the French), but the idea and good humour takes it a long way. It’s a nice tribute to the pleasure of creation, and to the perilous relationship between expanded resources and creative control, depicted here via the tension between the two boys when the project takes off and too many other kids want to get on board.

Giuseppe Tornatore is best remembered for his own work of mushy cinematic nostalgia, Cinema Paradiso, which the Internet informs me is a lot of people’s favourite foreign language film. Since then he’s seemed to have trouble hitting his stride, but his new film The Unknown Woman cleaned up at last year’s Italian Oscars. Hard to see why – it’s an entertaining melodrama, but really all about the cheap thrills. A young Ukrainian woman sets her mind on working for a particular Italian family, managing to get in as nanny to their young daughter (in part by tripping up her predecessor at the top of a long flight of stairs); her relationship with the young girl clearly has something behind it, and the flashbacks of her past are unremittingly lurid. Tornatore holds it all together, but isn’t aiming real high.

Flight Of The Red Balloon

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flight Of The Red Balloon was my favourite film of last year’s film festival, at which time I raved about it here, and it will likely be my favourite release of this year. I haven’t been able to find confirmation for this, but I’m almost certain that the film festival version contained several scenes missing from the print now playing at the Royal – when I say the film could have been just barely better, I’m wishing to get that material back. But the 98% that remains is almost uniquely graceful and complex, a stunning, counter-intuitive tribute to the 1956 French film The Red Balloon and more generally to art in a globalized world. If you didn’t see it, it’s surely the year’s most necessary pending DVD release…but I hope they add back the missing stuff.

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