Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Three Comedies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2005)

A few notes on three recent films, all broadly belonging to the comedy category:

Dear Frankie

Dear Frankie, directed by Shona Auerbach, is about a Scottish single mother of a deaf nine-year-old; his father was a louse they left behind somewhere, but the boy thinks he’s at sea, and writes letters to a post office box from which he receives responses penned by the mother. Eventually, events dictate either that she breaks the pretense or that the father somehow appears, so she enlists a stranger to play the part for the day. Of course, all three find their fictionalized structure utterly beguiling, although the film doesn’t resolve itself quite as neatly as you initially expect. It’s also not as sentimental as it might be, it’s not at all funny (although it’s apparently intended to be so in a wistful kind of way) and the basic storyline doesn’t amount to much incident when stretched over the course of a full-length film, so it seems at times that this is the epitome of a movie about next to nothing. It has a couple of saving virtues though. The first is the scrupulous depiction of life in a dead-end milieu at the wrong end of the economic spectrum – a place with such limited horizons that a character can sit on the hill overlooking the dismal looking port and say it’s her favourite sight in the whole world. Second is the performance by Emily Mortimer as the mother – it’s very delicate work, full of small details, and evidencing a superb emotional mobility that contrasts nicely with her slightly gawky features; the film allows her some personal development, but not enough that it becomes mawkish, and this restraint shows up in other ways as well. So the film is fine to watch, but it lacks that streak of wildness or daring that sometimes lifts modest material into the realms of the transcendental.

Melinda and Melinda

Woody Allen’s latest film is his best in a while, and it’s truly disappointing how little that amounts to. It starts with two playwrights bickering over dinner about the relative merits of comedy and tragedy; when a dining companion throws in a sample plotline, each takes it in a different direction to illustrate his thesis, and the film depicts these two directions in parallel plotlines that wrap around each other. In each case, a distraught woman named Melinda, played by Radha Mitchell, unexpectedly turns up at a dinner party, and things go on from there. The tragic story co-stars Chloe Sevigny and Jonny Lee Miller; the comic tale has Will Ferrell and Amanda Peet. As usual, Allen’s ability to attract a fine cast provides his film a major boost.

The problems with Melinda and Melinda are easy enough to set out. The initial thesis is trite – the opposition between the two extremes is unsophisticated, sounding like something Allen might have mulled over at the dawn of his career. In any event, the comic story is only very marginally funnier than the tragic one. Nowadays Allen’s notion of funny is characterized merely by a generalized whininess, and the dialogue has become horrendously lazy – Ferrell, playing an actor, is allowed to repeat four times a lame bit about how his innovative approach to a particular character involved affecting a limp. Conversely, the approach to tragedy is heavily dependent on grim, extended monologues, delivered while staring off into the middle distance.

The movie is entertaining enough scene by scene, and it avoids the sheer clunkiness of several recent Allen movies. It looks handsome too, although Allen’s home territory seems to be shrinking further, down to just a few Manhattan blocks; and of course the characters’ primary occupations and preoccupations never change either. Nowadays Allen seems to set merely incremental challenges for himself, perhaps still thinking of how Ingmar Bergman and his other heroes worked consistently within a superficially narrow aesthetic. But it is hard to deny that his films feel rushed and under-considered. Still, if all others move away, I will be there to the end. And his next film was shot in the UK, which at least gives us the prospect of something fresh (if only because it will be amusing to see how he pulls off his customary trick of making the British actors sound like Allen himself).

Up And Down

Part of the problem with Allen is that he shows no interest in politics, or in the environment, or in social evolution (after 35 years, it struck many critics as notable that a key role in Melinda and Melinda is played by black actor Chiwetel Ejiofor). Not that he ever was, but when he seemed to be alone in mining a particular and relevant emotional territory, it didn’t matter. Nowadays you might wonder why we should care about a director who seems to care so little about us.

The utter decline of the US is lampooned effectively enough by the likes of Jon Stewart and in any amount of online commentary, but we have not seen much effective satire from American cinema lately. For that we must go to other countries, where contemporary fault lines are perhaps debated with less sanctimonious hypocrisy. For an example, see the new Czech film Up And Down, directed by Jan Hrebek, which concentrates in particular on the stresses of the country’s transition to a multicultural society. In the primary plotline, a slightly dim witted security guard tries to cast off his history as a militant soccer hooligan; his wife longs unsuccessfully for a baby, eventually buying a dark-skinned child accidentally acquired by a couple of refugee smugglers. The guard overcomes his initial revulsion and bonds with the child, even standing up to his racist peers, but in the end bad luck, or perhaps inevitable societal gravity, pulls him back down.

The film has several other plotlines exploring related themes – the fragility of progressive liberal intentions when faced with eruptions of violence; the reluctance of the older generation to accept the changing attitudes of the younger; the intertwining of the personal and the political; the visceral appeal of mass brutishness; the way a volatile society generates winners and losers (it also has a cameo appearance by Vaclav Havel, which may be too clear a signal of its ambition). None of this is completely resolved, and the film is not as subtle as it might be, but it doesn’t overplay its cynicism and doesn’t let sheer structure and narrative overwhelm its sensitivity to character; compared to something like, say, Mexico’s Amores Perros, it’s clear that the tone here is more in sorrow than in anger. By virtue of its origins, it has by far the lowest profile of the three films dealt with here, but by any conceivable measure it’s worth twice the other two put together. Not least of all – it’s the funniest.

Wishing for the end

The audacity of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia isn’t so much that it imagines the end of the world, but that it almost seems to be longing for it. As such it’s perhaps the von Trier movie that helps make sense of many of the others – his work is a stream of eccentrically dark visions and aggressively quirky distractions, often seeming held together more by what we know of the director (depressive, neurotic, obsessed with America despite never having been there) than what we glean from the films themselves. The category of what we (think we) know about von Trier expanded handily earlier this year, at the Cannes film festival. Melancholia was mostly well-received there, and its star Kirsten Dunst won the award for best actress. But this was all overshadowed by a press conference where von Trier went off on an extreme tangent, as follows: “What can I say? I understand Hitler, but I think he did some wrong things, yes, absolutely. ... He's not what you would call a good guy, but I understand much about him, and I sympathize with him a little bit. But come on, I'm not for the Second World War, and I'm not against Jews.”

Humanity and generosity

The Cannes directors described these remarks as “unacceptable, intolerable and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the festival” and declared von Trier persona non grata. The director apologized, but later said “I can't be sorry for what I said—it's against my nature.” And then he sailed on toward his next controversy (due perhaps to erupt as soon as he releases his next project, reportedly an epic work of pornography). Contrary to the ideals of humanity? Well, in a way of course. But coming from the man whose last film depicted genital self-mutilation, you could as easily interpret it as exemplifying (in all its sloppiness) some kind of ideal, or at least a kind of necessity: how we compensate for whatever’s lacking within us by reaching out, playing games, putting ourselves on display.

Melancholia depicts this through Dunst’s character, Justine, newly-married (Alexander Skarsgard plays her husband) and two hours late to her own reception, an excessive affair held at a golf club owned by her brother in law John (Kiefer Sutherland). She only intermittently connects with the proceedings, at other times wandering off alone, or curling up asleep on her nephew’s bed; she’s affectionate toward her new husband, but lacks any real affinity with him. Her mother (Charlotte Rampling) is cold and cutting; her father (John Hurt) a genial buffoon who’s all but left reality behind. The event limps its way to a failed ending, squandering the attempts of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) at holding it all together. And yet there’s a fragile beauty to its culmination, where the guests launch fragile, illuminated balloons into the air, floating upward like requests for redemption.

The Earth is evil

The film’s second part, set a day or two later, answers this request by sending the giant planet Melancholia, earlier glimpsed only as a distant star, into our own orbit, possibly fatally. Justine has become virtually catatonically depressed in the wake of the wedding, but as the threat approaches, she becomes eerily calm. “The Earth is evil,” she tells Claire, “we don’t need to grieve for it.” Claire’s rationalism, in contrast, leaves her vulnerable and increasingly ineffective, and her husband’s self-righteous, bottom-line-driven bluster ultimately gives way to astonishing cowardice. Discussing the appropriate mode of behaviour at the end of the world, Claire envisages a glass of wine on the terrace. Justine reacts to the idea with scorn, shooting back why not on the toilet?

The point is fairly clear of course: if the first part of the film didn’t convince us of the emptiness of our structures and devices and rituals (a critique which I suppose might extend to the utility of press conferences as well as of wedding receptions), the second suggests we’re so eroded by them, even the pending end of the world can’t galvanize us to reclaim our inner selves. Von Trier bakes his revulsion into the marrow of his film, shooting most events in a radically unsteady hand-held style: the Varsity, where I saw the movie, explicitly warned patrons of possible motion sickness, which my wife’s experience unfortunately confirms.

But Melancholia is also flamboyantly beautiful at times, opening with a series of intense, slow-motion tableaux (all drawing in various ways on later events), illustrating heightened states as if the world had been polished and prettified until its inner energy started to ooze out. And its attention to its actors goes far beyond mere dyspepsia. I already mentioned Dunst’s performance: I doubt whether anyone again will use her rather blank, crunched-up prettiness to such productive ends (von Trier is oddly successful at directing actresses; Charlotte Gainsbourg and – no joking – Bjork previously won the Cannes award in films of his). But I’m not sure Kiefer Sutherland has ever been better either!

Heightened knowledge

Towards the end, Justine reveals – almost as an aside – that she has a heightened knowledge of things, some of them superficial (instinctively knowing how many beans are in a jar), others awe-inspiring (the absence of any other life in the universe). In the world as we know it, this seems mostly to contribute to her dysfunction; such capacity could only find peace at the end of time and searching. This might be a humane and generous (to coin a phrase) invention by von Trier, casting the self-lacerating darkness of depression as a cruel symptom of being stranded out of time and place…except that the right time and place only occurs at the end of everything.

Which is why I called Melancholia a kind of wish for the end of the world. The film doesn’t aim at realism of course: most obviously, the intruding planet turns up and parks itself on our doorstep, astronomically speaking, with barely an impact on our climate. Except for a few glimpses of Internet searches and throwaway references to what the “scientists” are saying, there’s no sense of the world beyond the house and grounds. The retreat is the most rarified of settings in which to lose oneself, lush and elegant and boundless, reminiscent of numerous other past epics of splendid high art isolation. And although you probably wouldn’t have gleaned this so far, the film’s at least half-way to being the blackest of comedies; there’s an air of Blake Edwards in how Justine systematically grinds down the illusions of her beaming new husband. Surely the whole idea of calling a movie Melancholia is meant to be at least a little funny?

I can’t recommend everyone see the movie (I’m sure many readers will have resolved from the above that it’s the last thing they’d ever see). And yet, I could imagine a person responding to it with tears of gratitude, feeling deeper affinity to it than to almost anything they’d ever seen before.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Canadian versions

My wife watches the TV drama Covert Affairs, Sundays on Showcase, starring Piper Perabo as (it appears) the only CIA agent who gets any actual assignments. It’s set largely in Washington and sometimes in exotic global locations, but it’s mostly shot here in Toronto, often in my downtown neighbourhood. One episode was set in Paris, and from the look of the exteriors they actually went there too, but then all of a sudden they were close to the Flatiron building. Sometimes they barely seem to try to hide the fact it’s really Toronto, although of course I’m only capable of saying that because I know the city. Filmmakers obviously don’t sign any kind of cartography integrity pledge - New Yorkers for instance have been complaining for years about how movies set in the city make a mockery of the city’s geography. It would no doubt hurt a show like Treme if you suspected its immersion in New Orleans culture were being periodically supplemented by exteriors from anonymous-looking Canadian streets. But for a mostly breezy romp like Covert Affairs, it doesn’t matter at all. The show has a kind of upbeat can-do attitude, like a spy version of The Little Engine that Could. Real places (or for that matter real anything) are just confining, don’t you think? The ability not to care is liberating!

Toronto movies

Watching Covert Affairs in Toronto evokes theatre, the use of cues and signifiers and the power of the imagination to create an illusion of physical space. Living here, you get used to it; you forget many people might be excited to see their home town mentioned just once on the local news, let along having their surroundings endlessly chewed up and reconfigured. When film production was at its peak here, it was hard to be surprised by anything (including on a personal level: one evening I was taking my dog for a walk, trying not to step on the movie cables; I happened to look through a window, and there was Sylvester Stallone). If Chicago suddenly turns out to encompass BCE Place; if future society has modeled itself in part on the Eaton Centre; well, of course. One might have wished for the city to play itself in mainstream movies more often, but on the other hand, how liberating would that have been?

That activity’s died down now, which is why Covert Affairs is so engaging. Actually, if you see the city on the screen nowadays, it probably is playing itself. Rookie Blue and Flashpoint also film in my neighbourhood periodically. I’ve never seen the latter; the former, although set in Toronto, seems too preoccupied with abs and cleavage to know where it is. I’m sure there are other shows too. On the big screen, unfortunately, setting a big movie in Toronto seems only to guarantee a flop. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was meant to be the cult hit to end them all, and it certainly had a somewhat interesting technique, energy and worldview. However, once you’d gleaned this – after the first ten minutes or so – the movie might have been crafted specifically to illustrate the concept of “diminishing returns.” I actually think Michael Cera might make a good protagonist for a film called Diminishing Returns; he sums up something about the void at the centre of contemporary culture, some notion of how the more connected you are, the more you cancel yourself out. The movie name-checked lots of specific Toronto locations (mostly in the West End) but since the movie was primarily set inside a video game, it didn’t carry much weight.

This Movie is Broken

And then you have the staggeringly lamentable case of Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, an erotic psychological thriller of sorts, but with no feeling for human behaviour and interaction, revealing the latter-day Egoyan as a hack who can only think in terms of structures and poses. The film thuddingly worked in Toronto landmarks of various kinds, but since nothing in it felt remotely real, you might have imagined it was mostly shot somewhere else (like maybe in a sensory deprivation tank).

My favourite recent Toronto picture of the ones I’ve seen is a much smaller thing, Bruce McDonald’s This Movie is Broken. About half of the film consists of Broken Social Scene playing a free concert at the Harbourfront; McDonald weaves a light but engaging relationship narrative around it. The ending, with its broadening of the apparent canvas, suggests the city as a site of infinite possibilities, embodied by the band through its multiplicity and superb musicianship. McDonald certainly seems here like a Toronto romantic, but since he sets the film against the garbage crisis, he’s not goofy about it.

If there were more Toronto movies like This Movie is Broken – or at least, if I knew about them – maybe I’d go all the time. I’d like to watch more Canadian films, but they always get such lousy reviews, or they get good reviews that feel written almost under duress. The latter applied to last year’s Barney’s Version, which the Star in particular shamelessly gushed over for months. Audiences stayed away with equal enthusiasm. I watched it on cable the other week, and almost found myself wishing for Chloe (no, I’m joking, that could only ever be a joke).

Barney’s Version

You know the problem with it? There’s no “version.” There’s no flavour, no worldview. There’s just this character called Barney. Sometimes he’s abrasive; sometimes he’s impulsive; sometimes this; sometimes that. He gets married to this woman, then that one, then this one. He may have killed someone once; the movie intermittently suggests we’re meant to view this as a big structuring mystery of his life. Eventually he gets old and sick. No doubt in Mordecai Richler’s book, which I haven’t read, this all coalesced into a classic character and a memorable evocation of time and place. But the film is bland and monotonous. It looks ugly. It evokes Montreal so indifferently that it might as well have been shot in Toronto. Paul Giamatti just does his irascible “great actor” thing, showing no sign of being meaningfully directed. As I said, from what’s on the screen, there’s no reason it would have that title. There’s no sense of personal storytelling, of conflicting perceptions (except in the most literal-minded way). There’s no version.

It’s probably a good thing I haven’t read the book – I’m sure the film would seem an even greater abomination if I had. Especially if I lived in Montreal. Anyway, I was about to write that I’m sure we’ll get a great contemporary Toronto film one day, but I’m actually not sure. But we’re way ahead of most cities, if only because the next time someone says in a film “We’ll always have Paris,” he might actually be thinking of us.

Chick movie

One of the most surreptitiously meaningful moments in the hit comedy Bridesmaids (now out on DVD) comes during a tennis match sequence; it’s a doubles game, and the focus is on the competition between two of the film’s stars, played by Kristen Wiig and Rose Byrne. The other two actresses have no dialogue; they’re just space-fillers. But Wiig’s partner, notable only for her grotesque facial expressions, is played by Melanie Hutsell, who was a regular on Saturday Night Live for several years in the early 90’s. Since then, as far as I can tell, she’s had little meaningful film or TV work. Of course, many males must also look back on their SNL years as a never-replicated highpoint, but I don’t think you ever see their subsequent estrangement from the spotlight summed up so starkly and unsentimentally.

Jill Clayburgh

And then the late Jill Clayburgh makes her last screen appearance in the film, as the mother of Wiig’s character. Clayburgh at least has an actual speaking part, but it’s one of those weirdo old person roles, as a fuss-bucket who obsessively attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings even though she’s never taken a drink. Clayburgh enjoyed a brief vogue as a leading star, with best actress Oscar nominations in both 1978 and 1979 (for An Unmarried Woman and Starting Over), but it petered out after a few years; in the context of her last two decades, the Bridesmaids role actually seems like a relative highlight. Again, it’s not that men don’t suffer similar reversals – just look at her Starting Over co-star Burt Reynolds – but if nothing else, it usually takes longer.

These twin reference points help you to appreciate the fragility at the centre of the movie. Wiig’s character Annie is on a downward slide - she lost all her money in a failed bakery venture, can’t pay her rent, her relationships are going nowhere. Her best friend, played by Maya Rudolph, gets engaged, enlisting Annie as matron of honour; she has the enthusiasm for it, but not the skill, and more seriously not the money. In contrast, another member of the wedding party, Helen, a best-friend-come-lately played by Byrne, virtually lives for such events, and has a bottomless supply of money. This can only lead to friction, embarrassment, gross-out screw-ups, and so forth.

Highs and lows

The movie, co-written by Wiig and directed by Paul Feig, ably blends contrasting comic styles and techniques into a pretty sturdy concoction. At times it’s pleasantly distinctive and naturalistic; a flirtation between Annie and a traffic cop doesn’t feel at all like off-the-shelf cuteness. At other times it’s about the high-concept set-pieces – my favourite was the ludicrously excessive wedding shower, where guests ride up to the house on white horses and then receive a Labrador puppy (in a pink beret) as a party favour. Melissa McCarthy, playing the groom’s sister, hangs out in her own surreal universe and wrestles everything within it into submission. Wiig seldom breaks out the scene-hogging qualities she sometimes displays on SNL, meaning that when she does, it makes sense as an expression of a largely stifled inner life momentarily busting loose.

Bridesmaids is good enough, scene to scene, to remind you how much you miss the mature, meaningful, expansive comedies of past decades. It doesn’t get there though, mainly because it doesn’t want to. A comedic classic like The Apartment might be considered almost laughless by contemporary standards, which intertwines with its effectiveness in evoking mood and character. Bridesmaids can’t take the chance of going more than a few minutes without tweaking the audience, and willingly pays the price for that. So for example, it leaves us in no doubt about Annie’s dire financial situation, but doesn’t bother to explain how she scrounges together the money for a trip to Vegas (albeit that she’s the only one of the group sitting in coach). She hits a bottom, and then a worse bottom, and no doubt you feel sorry for her, but you don’t feel her pain. This is probably the right calculation from a commercial perspective, but the movie’s highs might have been much more resonant if it hadn’t sugar-coated its lows. (I also can’t help wishing her passion was something other than baking. Not that there’s anything wrong with baking. But there’s nothing wrong with software development or engineering either.)

Relevance of feminism

It’s remarkable that a comedy built around women is still viewed as something of a novelty, if not a major commercial risk. The movie pounces on the opportunity as if it might never come again, setting out a dire gallery of maleness. The men on view – excepting of course the Irish cop who embodies all hope - are either mind-numbingly bland or ineffective, such as the fiancée, or nastily self-serving. Helen’s marriage is seemingly an emotional wasteland, with a husband who’s always away and two step-kids who ignore her; another of the bridesmaids paints a verbal picture of unbroken grinding misery, verging on abuse really; yet another, a newly-wed, eventually admits the aridity of her supposedly dream relationship. One might have surmised there’s little or nothing here for the male viewer, but the indictment doesn’t really bite very deeply; despite all the bumps, the closing sense of things is to keep persevering and holding on, because as Woody Allen put it, we need the eggs. The movie’s final scene, a coda running under the end credits, depicts McCarthy’s character and her new boyfriend preparing for an erotic experience; the specific details will be a turn-on to virtually no viewer (I assume so anyway), but somehow the scene manages to seem celebratory rather than (or maybe I should say as well as) squirm-inducing. See, there’s a perfect partner for all of us.

The day after seeing the film, I happened to see snippets of a recent interview with Gloria Steinem, touching on such issues as whether feminism is still a relevant concept. Even if that issue were in any sense settled, I suppose we’d keep resurrecting it periodically; sexual difference is probably too alluring and charged a commodity ever to be left alone. Sometimes a movie like Bridesmaids seems astonished anything might ever go right for a modern woman who isn’t a complete sell-out. One’s life experience seems to say this pessimism is overdone, which is partly why the movie can be categorized mostly as a fantasy. But then you think of Hutsell and Clayburgh. Maybe the broader story of their lives is that they put other things above their careers, I don’t know. But that would only take us to other familiar territory, about the difficulty of balancing legitimate professional ambitions and biological determinism.

Cool Miracles

There was a time when a disproportionate number of the foreign films I saw were by the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, just because he made a lot of them, and they were fairly widely released. They’re generally fairly short, concise, deadpan, dealing with down-to-earth situations without a lot of over-emoting; movies you’d ideally watch while wearing sunglasses and smoking cigarettes. I don’t think any of them ever meant a lot to me really, but if you were into art cinema, it’s the kind of thing you got served and therefore ate. Anyway, he’s been much less productive in recent years, and it’s been a long time since I saw a Kaurismaki film. But he’s back with Le Havre, generally praised as one of the best entries at this year’s Cannes festival, and playing now at the Bell Lightbox.

Le Havre

The film revolves around an aging shoe-shine guy, Marcel, in the (as presented here anyway) highly unglamorous French port city, going through a highly minimal life in a highly minimal way, while his wife’s in the hospital with a seemingly incurable disease. Eating his lunch one day, he happens on an African kid, Idrissa, who’s on the run after the cops intercepted the container smuggling him and others into London; Idrissa later follows him home, and Marcel takes his cause on board; to hide him from the authorities and get him to his family.

The movie reminds you (if you needed to be reminded) of how disposable most movies are; of how even major events pass by in an inconsequential, affectless flurry. Marcel has a dog (played by Laika, who gets prominent billing in the opening titles), and when Kaurismaki gives us shots of Laika, which is quite often, he really gives us shots of Laika: usually nicely and fully presented in the middle of the frame, looking blissfully happy. Another example – Marcel’s wife asks him to stay away for two weeks while she’s undergoing her treatment, and then to bring her yellow dress, which she identifies as the one she wore on a particular occasion. Later on he opens her side of the closet, and we see two dresses, the yellow one and just one other one (his side contains just a single suit). Of course it’s a sad summary of their meager circumstances. But still, the yellow dress counts. The point is about the weight of moments and experiences. Sometimes the weight is crushing – we gain a tangible sense of the frustrations and humiliations of Marcel’s way of life (one of the movie’s first shots is of feet passing him by in the train station, none of them wearing anything that would need to be polished). Sometimes, life yields miracles. The tragedy for many of us is that by inoculating ourselves from the former, we fail to understand the latter.

The Weight of Moments

The movie’s not romantic or dreamy though – it’s pragmatic and tough-minded, and as always, Kaurismaki keeps overt displays of emotion to an absurdist minimum. It’s also a tribute to the classic notion of community, where you have the grocer and the baker and the bar owner, and they all realize they’re in it together (even the cop perceives this, regardless that in the past he’s put some of the locals in jail). And although Kaurismaki presents this in extremely localized terms, he also conveys how the community is potentially vast, easily taking on the plight of a lost African kid as its own (the film encompasses a compelling mini-portrait of his dispossessed family, with a grandfather stuck in a refugee centre and his mother living illegally in London, working in a “well-paid” job in a Chinese laundry), and including a mysterious rock icon called “Little Bob” - seemingly playing a version of himself - who lends himself to a “trendy charity concert” on the boy’s behalf. All in all, it’s a great little movie. It’s almost a shame though, because I have so much activity on my movie to-do list already, and now I’m thinking I might have to go back and watch some of those earlier films again.

I always tend to link Kaurismaki in my mind with the American director Jim Jarmusch, who started around the same time and had a quite similar reputation and prominence for a while; in fact, the two men are friends. I recently rewatched two of the films from Jarmusch’s heyday (I’m telling you, that movie to-do list really has no end), and it was a very satisfying exercise. Night on Earth, from 1991, depicts five different cab rides, happening simultaneously in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki. The first, with Winona Ryder and Gena Rowlands, depicts a casting agent trying to entice the driver into doing a screen test, but finding she prefers her life’s modest parameters to the instability, however lucrative and glamorous, of Hollywood stardom. Nice enough, but a minor irony at best.

Jim Jarmusch

As the film progresses though, Jarmusch subtly and masterfully increases the existential stakes; the second last episode deals with a passenger who dies (although in farcical circumstances) and the final sequence – in Helsinki, with a group of actors from Kaurismaki’s films – incorporates death into its very essence, constructing a character who’s come to be largely defined by it. In retrospect, the film’s scope is considerable, moving from an America where values are often indistinguishable from negotiations, to a Europe where the stakes, if materially smaller and quieter, are better understood. On top of all this, naturally, the film just overflows with Jarmusch’s trademark cool.

And then I rewatched the even more iconic Down by Law, where Tom Waits and John Lurie play two disaffected New Orleans guys, both set up and thrown into jail where they end up sharing a cell. After a while they’re joined by a third cellmate, a wacky Italian played by Roberto Benigni (who’s also in Night by Earth; Jarmusch uses the problematic actor so well that it almost compensates for Life is Beautiful). The three of them escape and wander through the swamps, from which they eventually emerge, with Benigni’s character finding a ridiculously convenient happy ending and the other two ending up at a literal fork in a road, un-signposted and with directions unknown, which nevertheless represents a more coherent life choice than they’ve ever possessed prior to that (of course, while you’re watching it, the movie doesn’t feel at all like a gravitation toward coherence – you only think of that afterwards). Neither Kaurismaki nor Jarmusch makes “realistic” films in the way we usually use the term; on the contrary, beneath their laconic personae, they share a sharp understanding of how supposed realism can just turn into clutter and convention. Strip all that away, and it’s astonishing what you find underneath.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Steps and Limits

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2009)

I saw the famous musical A Chorus Line for the first time when it came here as part of last year’s Mirvish season. It was a proficient enough production, but left me rather cold; even more than with many touring productions, it seemed like a hologram of something stuck in a very different time, attitude and place. Of course I knew the climax would be the iconic “One” (one singular sensation, every little breath she takes…) but I was surprised how flat its impact was. The show is built around auditioning performers, who spill out their vulnerabilities and desires and fears as they try to establish themselves for the director, and I suppose it’s an irony that their pay-off is to become participants in a musical machine that disregards individuality for the sake of immaculate synchronity. Maybe it’s me, but I actually found it a bit depressing.

Every Little Step

Whenever I go to musical theatre, I’m always stunned at the technical skill and control of the performers, and it often crosses my mind how little separates the stars from the utility players. The new documentary Every Little Step reminds us how theatrical glory intertwines with tragedy; for every big break, there are a hundred thwarted dreams, and at least a few agonizingly near misses. The film documents the casting process for the 2006 Broadway Chorus Line revival (which spawned the recent touring production), from the initial open calls (attracting more than 3,000 people), whittled down over more than a year into ever-smaller groups and finally, for some roles, to one-on-one showdowns. It interweaves this with a potted history of the original production, including audio recordings of the original nightlong talk session during which creator Michael Bennett and a group of friends spawned the original concept.

If you have any taste at all for the genre, then Every Little Step is surefire entertainment – with such rich material it couldn’t be otherwise. The directors make pretty good choices overall, but you almost regret it couldn’t have been a multi-part TV series; so many alternative avenues necessarily go unexplored. Still, we should have such problems with every movie. I also found myself reflecting again on how little this kind of Broadway production, with its immense infrastructure and overhead, has in common with the immediacy of small-scale theatre; A Chorus Line may have been born in the everyday dreams and struggles of people low on the ladder, but on this scale (and absent any kind of rethinking for a new generation), what was once truthful within it now becomes the same kind of saccharine as a so-called reality show.

Afterwards, I googled some of the performers highlighted in the film. For all the painstaking selection process, many of them received rather underwhelming reviews, and I’m not sure any of them necessarily went on yet to bigger and better things. The world of Every Little Step might be a more brutal risk-reward arena than any stock market – huge risk, huge reward (viscerally at least), and then when the gig ends, essentially back to zero.

The Limits Of Control

It’s easy to maintain an image of Jim Jarmusch as the coolest enigma among directors, as a less preoccupied David Lynch maybe, but is he more than that? I think he might be, but I need to revisit the earlier films, and I never get round to it. Maybe that makes me a Jarmuschian character. His oeuvre has much deadpan contemplation, multicultural connection, mysterious interplay, hints of the beyond. They are unquestionably intelligent – the western Dead Man, perhaps his best film, might be one of the most fascinating deconstructions of American myths ever made – but it often feels Jarmusch is placing a brake on himself, as if it’s just not worth engaging us past a certain point. If only by implication anyway, his films suggest an extreme malaise in the governing pace and engorged complexity of mainstream culture.

His new film The Limits Of Control follows a contract killer on assignment in Spain, passing from one contact to the next, doing a lot of waiting and watching. The film hasn’t gone down very well with most reviewers, being generally regarded as a succession of pretty pictures and contrived scenes (actors like Tilda Swinton and John Hurt pop up briefly, delivering a few cryptic lines on the abstract nature of reality or suchlike before moving on), building up to nothing much. It’s easy to understand this view, and the film does have a rather academic air about it. Still, in the end it’s possible to see it as one of Jarmusch’s most direct expressions yet of his underlying worldview. That is, the killer’s quest is very symbolic of a challenge to latter-day American imperialism, as if representing a coalition of perceived opposing values (philosophy, contemplation, aesthetic appreciation, uncomplicated eroticism) asserting itself against Bush-era stridency and poison. The use of near magic at the end seems to suggest the untapped, liberating possibility within us, if we just change the conversation.

I have to admit that the above version of it, as it constructed itself in my mind afterwards, is a little more satisfying than the actual viewing experience. But it’s the measure of a major filmmaker that you’re willing to take this more as your limitation than his. I must definitely schedule that personal Jarmusch retrospective, but maybe I’ll just sit in the sun and think a while first, and order an espresso.

Goodbye Solo

In Ramin Bahrani’s Goodbye Solo, the Senegalese Solo, now driving a cab in North Carolina, is offered $1,000 by William, an aging local guy, to drive him to a nearby windy peak in two weeks’ time, presumably so he can jump off it. This concept is too far outside Solo’s worldview – he tries to befriend William, to learn his troubles, certain he can persuade him out of it. This basic plot is obviously contrived, but the film’s value is in what it adds to the growing body of American cinema on the immigrant experience. Solo’s resourceful optimism guarantees him a foothold on the ladder (there’s a sad contrast with another, much more bewildered-seeming immigrant who cleans at William’s motel), but for now at least may also form his ceiling; at an interview for a flight attendant position, having to deal with the suits behind the desk, he seems lightweight, whereas William’s sadness, isolation, and piled-up skeletons are inherent to his authenticity. But it’s a changing world, with ever-reinforcing and multiplying diversity now occupying the bloodstream even of the red states – for example, Solo is married a Mexican woman - and the movie shows something of the quasi-shadow economy’s complex contours. At the end, Goodbye Solo is more optimistic than not, but leaves no doubt about how much remains to be processed, negotiated and fought over before the current creeping revolution attains its promise.

Scares and Shames

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2007)

I think I make the mistake with Michael Moore of judging his work as though he were a documentarian, whereas he’s really more of a populist performance artist. I thought Bowling For Columbine had an intriguing angle on America’s self-fuelling culture of fear, but I barely got anything new out of Fahrenheit 911, and the messy opportunism turned me off. Nevertheless, it was a huge commercial success (which if the audience I saw it with was anything to go by, consisted entirely of preaching to the converted) and then won an Oscar for best documentary. Which added up to a lot of anticipation for his new film Sicko, focusing on the failings of the US health care system.


The premise is again familiar. Some fifty million Americans are uninsured, and for those with some kind of coverage, it’s a hopeless David vs. Goliath struggle against venal insurance companies who pull every trick in the book to avoid ever cutting a cheque, denying treatment for the flimsiest and most bureaucratic of reasons. Consequently, the health and longevity of Americans drifts steadily down compared to the rest of the world, with no hope of redemption in sight from a lobbyist-swamped system. This all compares wretchedly to the single payer systems that operate in Canada, France and the U.K. Even the maligned Cuba, as Moore illustrates in his film’s most notorious stunt, shows more basic decency toward ailing 9/11 rescue workers than the homeland. Bottom line – America should do better.

I wouldn't argue with any of this. Neither would anyone in the film – there’s no one on screen who’s invited to. Although Moore emphasizes the volume of case studies he digested in developing Sicko, he doesn’t seem to have done much real research beyond accumulating a big bag of anecdotes and horror stories. By asking a British doctor how much he makes (it translates to around US$200K) and illustrating the comfortable – but not extravagant – life available on that, he seems to be advocating for more rigorous cost control of medical salaries within a centralized system, but he doesn’t even start to muse on how the transition to such a structure might be effected. And he doesn’t touch at all on the biggest issue of all – that technology, longevity and spiraling expectations places unsustainable strain on the systems of the countries he idolizes. In Canada, for instance, you can plausibly argue that the proportion of public spending siphoned into health care (particularly with so little emphasis on prevention and wellness) is not rational as a strategy for future survival. Even if, patient by patient, it’s the “right thing to do.”

Moore’s best sequence in the film, harking back to what worked well in Columbine, critiques the oppressive cycle of American life, in which debt and fear leave too many people pathetic and compliant, against the galvanizing French tradition of public action and protest. Likewise, the egregious US propaganda against “socialized medicine” would never fly in Britain, which more correctly understands its National Health Service as a triumph of democracy, forged from the ruins of the Second World War; the goodwill of 9/11, by contrast, was squandered on military fiascos and complacent or self-interested policies. You wish Moore would follow these trains of thought more fully. But I don’t think he can: I don’t think he’s got the intellectual goods to go any further, and in any event, for everything that’s staring him in the face, he’s still a patriotic American, and makes sure to pack the film with pointless tributes to the greatness of the country and its people.

If he really confronted the citizenship with the extent of their collective failure, his movie wouldn’t be able to sustain the decent, shambling, more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone vital to the Moore persona. So Sicko is as probably as good as it gets from him – interesting in parts, inevitably affecting in others, but frankly not as useful a contribution to serious thinking as any day’s edition of a good newspaper. The fact that people don’t see this, and treat Moore as a serious (if imperfect) contributor to our public debate is merely a function of the same laziness that messes up the big issues in the first place.


On now to different kinds of scary movies. In Mikhael Hafstrom’s 1408, John Cusack is a once-promising author now churning out various guides to America’s haunted hotspots, while believing in ghosts about as much as he does in anything else. He takes on the biggest challenge of them all, to spend a night in room 1408 of a boutique New York hotel, where dozens of people have perished over the years. And you know, it doesn’t work out to be a good night for him.

It’s based on a Stephen King story, and seems essentially like a reworking of The Shining. This prompts a somewhat unfair if inevitable comparison with Stanley Kubrick’s version of that book, which has a structural complexity and thematic intrigue lacking in Hafstrom’s film. 1408 is pretty gripping on its own terms though – it builds well and expertly controls its tone. Cusack is a very good centre, even if his character is conceived in rather clichéd terms, and Samuel L Jackson really nails his small role as the discouraging hotel manager.

Live Free or Die Hard

Maybe the prospect of another Bruce Willis action flick is frightening enough in itself, although Live Free or Die Hard is a return to the site of his greatest successes (I have to say though I’ve never previously heard the first Die Hard praised so consistently as it was by reviewers putting down the new flick). The film is an entertaining yarn, much more solidly written than many action flicks, with a focused, unfussy air about it.

The theme is cyber-terrorism: a group of computer whizzes plans to cripple America’s technology infrastructure, and in the process to empty most of its bank accounts. It’s all intriguingly depicted and, to my inexpert perspective at least, somewhat plausible. The master villain, played by Timothy Olyphant, is a former employee of the department of Homeland Security who fell out with his bosses and now exploits his inside knowledge for evil; better for him to be the exploiter, he says, than some foreigner. In this I couldn’t help detecting an echo of how the economy has been plundered by the Bush elite, all under the umbrella of patriotism and a free market. Willis is known to be a Republican though, so maybe I’m overreaching there. Or maybe it’s that the Bush elite has perfected mendacity in so many forms that almost any cartoon villainy will now suggest an easy metaphor.

Bad connections

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2007)

Barbet Schroeder’s documentary Terror’s Advocate is a rather frustrating movie, at least before you’ve thought about it for a while. It’s centered on Jacques Verges, the infamous French attorney, now in his 80’s, who at various times represented or advised Slobodan Milosevic, Pol Pot, Klaus Barbie, Carlos the Jackal, and dozens of unsavoury others. In the film’s signature line, he says he’d even represent George W Bush, as long as Bush pleaded guilty. Most of us will agree that even the lowest of the low expect a fair trial, but we’re all defined by the choices we make and the company we keep, and Verges’ compulsive affinity for obvious murderers and despots seems to indicate bottomless personal cynicism or moral corruption. The man himself though seems serene, reasonable (if smug), largely free of any ideological baggage (or at least keeping it well to himself).

Terror’s Advocate

The main exception to that is at the film’s very beginning: Verges calmly explains, as the camera takes us over layers of excavated bones from the mass graves, how the death tolls in the Khmer Rouge genocide have always been overstated. It seems that we’re headed for classic Holocaust denier type territory. But the film never returns to that vein again, leaving his attitudes conspicuously under examined. For example, the treatment of the Barbie trial is mostly limited to an expose of where the money for the defense came from, and then to Verges’ obvious relish at having been a lone defense lawyer going up against 39 prosecutors. His perspective on his client is never probed, and the film never even tells us what the verdict was - a strange omission even if most of us can either remember or guess (answer: life imprisonment). At the end there’s a long series of photos of other Verges clients or connections not previously addressed in the film, many of who look like the basis for potentially more intriguing material than what we’ve actually been watching.

As a narrative, the film is most satisfying early on, setting out how the young Verges got involved with defending Algerian freedom fighters during the final stretch of French colonialism. Most of us will see this as a just cause, and so Verges at this point seems brave and principled – even better, he fell in love with and married the beautiful freedom fighter he was defending. Later on he got drawn into Palestinian issues, which may have led to an association with diehard (and well financed) Nazi sympathizers. For most of the 70’s, he simply disappeared, his whereabouts unknown (most of his acquaintances assumed he was in Cambodia, but the Pol Pot regime denies it). The film’s latter section focuses in most detail on his association with Carlos and other pioneering international terrorists (and another love interest, perhaps platonic though), including some of the first wave of radical Islamists.

Origins Of Terrorism

At times, Verges almost seems lost in an endless network of international intrigue, surveillance, allegations and connections, and Schroeder often fills his frame to bursting with captions and imbedded images (certainly the subtitler couldn’t always think of a way to keep up). The director set out his angle in a recent interview: “I approached the movie as I would have approached a work of fiction. The human material, the characters are so rich, that I had a tendency to approach it like that and not as a documentary piece. It ended up being a movie about the origin of modern terrorism, the history of it.” And so whatever Verges’ personal complicity, he’s primarily a cog in the wheel, maybe even a quasi Forrest Gump who happened to bear witness to one of the defining movements of our times.

It’s possible to be almost nostalgic about a time when the origins of terrorism lay closer to home. The 60’s and 70’s were often turbulent and traumatic, and great malaise set in toward the end of that period - no one would wish to turn the clock back to it – but it now looks like a necessary self-correction (self-flagellation, if you like), which facilitated the booms and renewals of the last two decades. The trouble is of course that we’ve collectively become horribly complacent, to the very brink of implosion. The Iraqi war – a criminally under-motivated endeavour, sold as a grand project of freedom and yet mostly implemented like a second-rate break-in – is a decadence that couldn’t have existed in previous decades (the horror exceeds Vietnam at least in conception if not in (American) body count, not least because Vietnam didn’t have Vietnam to learn from).

Schroeder certainly capitalizes on this historical flavour – his film feels ripe and engaged, radiating relative gusto where (for example) Charles Ferguson’s No End In Sight, an excellent recent dissection of the Iraq mess, must necessarily traffic in desolation. It’s a great subject for this most versatile of directors. Schroeder produced Eric Rohmer’s early films, and even plays the lead role in one of them; later he was associated with Jacques Rivette (and appears in Rivette’s most recent film too). He made quirky documentaries about Idi Amin and talking gorillas, and some provocative fictions, before getting into English language movies with the Mickey Rourke Barfly. He scored an Oscar nomination for Reversal Of Fortune, and then became a mainstream Hollywood director, turning in efficient but mostly boring action vehicles for David Caruso and Sandra Bullock.

I don’t think Schroeder has ever been as accomplished as the French masters he’s worked with, but at this point he represents a unique melting pot of sensibilities and experiences, and Terror’s Advocate might be an almost ideal vehicle for him. If one were overanalyzing the director in terms of his constituent strands, you might almost say that he finds something of the restraint of a Rohmer within this most frenetic of subjects. Instead of walking out of there brandishing easy (but, in terms of the world we inhabit now, largely pointless) condemnations of Verges, we come out with a nagging emptiness. How we choose to fill that is, of course, up to us.


Terror’s Advocate eventually seems more relevant to our current climate, and to the war in Iraq in particular, than Brian De Palma’s Redacted, which is actually about the war. The movie’s conceit is that everything it contains is being intermediated –through the video camera of a young soldier, or that of a French documentary crew, through surveillance cameras, or webcams, or so forth. “Isn’t it ironic,” said De Palma recently, “that in order to tell the truth about Iraq, you have to create the truth?” (So much for documentary.) And what is this truth as the film presents it? It’s the cold-blooded, premeditated rape and murder by two soldiers of a young girl and her family, apparently based on a real incident, and yet surely hardly representative of the individual contribution of most soldiers (and not at all of the broader issues, except in the most crassly symbolic sense). It’s all well intentioned I suppose, and there are some effective moments, but it’s mostly stilted and juvenile and just not very useful.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Going Canadian

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2009)

I didn’t have any intention of seeing One Week, but a friend and I wanted to see a movie, and since my friend is a great Canadian, I thought this was the way to go: One Week, as one of the advertising pull-quotes has it, is “a love letter to Canada.” Joshua Jackson plays a Toronto teacher in his 20’s, with a fetching fiancée (Liane Balaban) but something missing, suddenly diagnosed with one-in-ten-odds cancer, who can’t face going into treatment; a well-timed chance encounter suggests the perfect delaying tactic – to buy a classic motor bike, and head west.

One Week

He ends up making it all the way to the coast, after photographing every giant dinosaur, photo mosaic and whatnot along the way, ooh-ing and ah-ing at lots of glorious scenery, and scooping in various other well-timed chance encounters; all of which facilitates a better focus on his real priorities and desires than he’s ever had before. Obviously, the movie is a contrivance; it’s consistently handsome and smoothly put together, but it’s the kind of thing where the relative strengths are manifestations of its inherent limitations. If you think about the last few minutes of any episode of Grey’s Anatomy, where the narrator muses about some banal life lesson over a bittersweet montage set to coffeehouse music, and you add in assorted Canadiana, then that’s just about One Week for you.

But you know, it did make me wish I saw more Canadian films, because for all its limitations, I liked the idea of it. I love Canada and have no intention of ever leaving, but I wasn’t born here, and I’ve never lived outside Toronto, so there are big gaps in my cultural appreciation. One Week’s “love letter” aspect comes across pretty well, including a very fetching portrayal of this very city (I guess it helps that everything takes place on the brightest of summer days); whatever the character’s unfulfilled ambitions might be, they’re not the fault of his homeland.

It’s not like I don’t see any Canadian films. I see everything Egoyan, Arcand and Cronenberg do…but the first two almost inevitably disappoint me. I see the occasional smaller film – I liked Ed Gass-Donnelly’s This Beautiful City last year (Young People F***ing, not so much). But I know it’s dabbling. I always muse about spreading myself too thin, cinematically speaking. Maybe I should just retrench and become a flag-bearer for the home front. I’ll nurture that thought for a while and see if it percolates.

One aspect of One Week suggests the possible frustrations of such a path: the squandering of several fine performers in inadequate supporting parts. I’ve seen Fiona Reid and Caroline Cave, who play his mother and sister, many times on stage, and never not been dazzled by them; their use here is pretty insipid (particularly in a clunky set-up toward the end where they just stand there silently looking misty-eyed). If I drew a broader lesson from my own experience, it might be to put my faith in local theatre and treat Canadian cinema merely as an occasional dessert, with all the nutritional limitations that implies.


But there again, I’m extrapolating too much from an unrepresentative sample. The following week, inspired by these thoughts, I went to see Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool, which had already been playing for several weeks. McDonald deserves to be a bigger hero than he is – a proudly Canadian filmmaker who’s consistently pretty successful at getting to do his own thing, in between lots of TV directing work. I have to admit I’ve seen only one or two of his films, and have probably never mentioned him in the ten years I’ve been doing this column.

Well, better late than never. Pontypool is set in a small Ontario town, almost entirely inside a local radio station. Morning DJ Mike Mazzy, a laconic veteran with an urge to be more iconoclastic than the format allows, starts getting more material than he can handle – confused but horrifying reports of people flipping out; mass riots, attacks and worse. The stimulant, it seems, might in some way be the English language itself, rendering the radio station a possible source of contamination.

Speaking French (to the extent the protagonists know any) might be a better protection against such a plague than any assault weapon, from which you can see that McDonald’s film is a witty riff on the cracks in the melting pot. In other countries, the living dead is spawned from a space virus or mad scientists or what have you; in Canada, it’s as if they manifest a crack in our ideals. And even though we never see the besieged town and most of the action happens off-screen, it’s a remarkably evocative portrait of outer circle Ontario.

McDonald’s actors (only a few with speaking parts), especially the lead Stephen McHattie, seem to be having a blast too, and why wouldn’t they? If Joshua Jackson’s travels had brought him into the world of Pontypool, he’d be zombie food within seconds – he’d probably hand out napkins and lie down for them. Sure, Canada’s convivial, and we love that, but what kind of calling card is that for our challenged century? Pontypool is the smaller film by conventional measures, but with much stronger (and sure, more deranged, that’s what I mean) DNA.


Going back to the subject of nutritional limitations, I went to see my first big-budget crowd-pleaser in quite a while, Duplicity, won over by mostly good reviews, by a sudden flurry of interest in writer-director Tony Gilroy (full-blown New Yorker profile, either the stepping stone to glory or the beginning of the end), and not least by Julia Roberts’ radiant appearance on Letterman. All of this outweighed my feeling it might just turn out to be a soulless series of manipulations. So there you go, should have followed my instinct.

Duplicity has Roberts (only slightly less radiant than on Letterman) and Clive Owen (fine, but inherently a lesser star, what’s a man to do) playing former secret service professionals now in the private sector (working for rival Johnson and Johnson type companies, although she’s actually undercover for the other side), looking for a big scam opportunity. It arrives in the form of a secret formula, but how to get through the state-of-the-art security set-ups? And can they trust each other?

Gilroy’s intricate structure is impressively sound overall, and he’s quite an elegant filmmaker at times, but the film has less subtext than his last one, Michael Clayton; it’s all about the reversals and the twists and the mis-directions. Sometimes it’s so immaculate it seems to skirt profundity; it might have got there too if the implied indictment of corporate amorality had hit a little harder, but it’s all too abstract to chime against the headlines. And they visit just about everywhere in the G7 except Canada, so no joy there.

In his own skin

Pedro Almodóvar has never been one of my favourite filmmakers – the key evidence is that I’ve never felt much impulse to see any of his movies a second time - but it’s hard to resist his escalating status as a cinematic treasure, the Betty White of art cinema (although not quite that old, and a little taller). At his best, his films are gorgeous artifacts of visual and narrative design, scintillatingly alive and curious. The limitation is that you never take much away from them, beyond a general appreciation for life in all its variation. That’s not negligible of course. His early films, made with extremely limited resources, were regarded as scandalous and boundary-pushing, but Almodóvar was a highly attractive and proficient boundary-pusher (maybe my comparison above should have been with Ellen DeGeneres): essentially good-natured, in love with classical melodrama, personally affable, with a near-genius for crafting accessibly twisted narratives (he’s the king of the flashbacks). In 1999 he won the foreign film Oscar for All about my Mother, and won another one a few years later for the screenplay of Talk to Her. He’s now one of the few directors whose name represents a guarantee of sorts.

The Skin I Live In

Of course, that implies a degree of repetition, and Almodóvar represents an extreme case study in recycling. Writing in Slate recently after rewatching all his films, June Thomas said: “Experiencing the Almodóvar filmography is like stepping into one of those endlessly repeating M.C. Escher paintings. Some motifs recur so frequently that I feared for my sanity. You know how, in police procedurals, the cops search a conspiracy-crazed suspect’s home and find the walls obsessively covered in newspaper clippings and photographs? That was me, totting up the number of movies in which Almodóvar characters use aliases (12), visit pharmacies (4), or keep unusual pets (3).” It’s all part of his appeal of course, evoking the old days when the great European auteurs were also brand names. Woody Allen occupies a similar kind of spot on the American spectrum, although the two have little in common otherwise (Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem aside).

Almodóvar’s new film The Skin I Live In probably isn’t his best – unlike Thomas, I have no desire to go back and figure out where in the spectrum it should fall (she put it ninth out of the eighteen he’s made) – but it’s spectacularly Almodóvarian, while occupying somewhat novel territory for him. The nature of the new territory might be viewed as a bit unambitiously pulpy though – it’s the mad scientist, carrying out unethical experiments in his creepy castle (for this purpose, a wonderful looking villa in Toledo). Antonio Banderas (who made his name in Almodóvar’s earlier movies, but hadn’t worked with him for the past two decades) plays the gifted surgeon, and the movie starts off with a kick-ass iconic puzzle – he keeps a gorgeous young woman locked up in an upstairs room, wearing a figure-hugging body stocking (I guess that might count in the “unusual pets” category?). Early on, we figure out he’s operated on her, giving her the face of his dead wife, but who is she? Is she actually the wife, having somehow survived the disfiguring tragedy that officially killed her? Is she his daughter, who was grievously traumatized after witnessing her mother’s death? I wish I could tell you, just because I’d like to see how the explanation actually looks when you write it down. But that would be a spoiler among spoilers.

Maintaining identity

By any normal measure, the plot is nuts. But Almodóvar plays it very straight, with such sumptuous conviction that you just about buy it. The material is potentially lurid to say the least, but the tone is sober – Thomas based her mid-range ranking on finding the tone “unusually dour” with an absence of light relief. That’s true enough – I think the light relief would be in what goes through your head as you watch it. But the idea of making such a straight-faced movie around this topic, and then pulling it off, is rather stunning in itself. At one point, we learn the doctor’s housekeeper is actually his mother – her wealthy employers at the time couldn’t have their own child, so she gave then her illegitimate son to raise – and that her acknowledged son, a sleazeball who had an affair with the doctor’s deceased wife, is actually his brother. In previous Almodóvar movies, such revelations would be at the heart of the matter, but here it’s just a throwaway. The serious point, perhaps, is that we can either allow ourselves to be defined by past traumas and compromises, or we can focus on what’s true and lasting (the movie ends rather wistfully and sweetly, on a poignant reunion of sorts). The Skin I Live In is certainly a fairly extreme parable on what constitutes one’s core identity (although, again, discretion prevents me from expanding further).

The movie is very easy to criticize, on any number of fronts. But I feel less inclined to pick at it than I normally do at Almodóvar’s films, because…I may as well come clean, I just loved watching the thing. Next thing you know, I’ll be tuning into Hot in Cleveland.

The Illusionist

Jacques Tati is one of my favourite filmmakers, although he was only able to make six full-length films during his life. Sylvain Chomet, who previously made The Triplets of Bellville, took one of Tati’s old script ideas and used it as the basis of his animated film The Illusionist: it came out last year and is now on DVD and cable. The storyline follows a down-on-his-luck French magician, animated to resemble Tati himself, who comes to try his luck in Scotland; after he performs in a Highland village, a young woman latches onto him and accompanies him to Edinburgh, where they end up living in a cheap hotel. It’s a peculiar little film, because while the character looks like Tati and one can imagine him in many of the situations, Chomet’s overall approach doesn’t evoke Tati at all. Films like Playtime and Mon Oncle constantly evoke a sense of being stranded: in one way or another, his people have lost the thread of modernity and its innovations and rhythms. The films avoid easy identification or pay-offs, using very few close-ups and uniquely unconventional pacing. This only vaguely applies to The Illusionist – it’s certainly slow and low-key by the standards of a Pixar film say, but the effect is much more conventionally sentimental than the master would ever have allowed himself to be. It’s unclear why one would labour so lovingly and painstakingly to resurrect the ghost of Tati, and then force him to occupy skin that’s plainly not his own.