Saturday, February 11, 2012
Chalk and Cheese
(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2009)
I really do wish I liked Atom Egoyan’s movies more than I do. It all sounds right up my alley – his fidelity to Toronto, his analytical modernity, the recurring interest in voyeurism and warped sexuality. Should be great. But even at his best, it’s never really clicked for me, and at his worst – which by my reckoning is the more common state – it’s just a grind. The problem is, Egoyan’s movies always seem off to me, as if generated by a precocious but under-seasoned juvenile. Ararat was all narrow preoccupations and bleeding heart sincerity and kindergarten film-within-a-film self-reflection – it seemed to go on forever. Where The Truth Lies was unpleasant and perplexing, metronomically missing every mood and period it aimed at. Some of the earlier, smaller movies may have had a surer hand, but who has the motivation to go back and check?
His latest, Adoration, is relatively more palatable, being merely minor and fussy as opposed to actively off-putting. A Toronto teenager, orphaned and living with his uncle, claims his Lebanese-born father was a would-be terrorist who duped his mother into carrying a bomb onto an Israel-bound flight; it’s a fiction (his parents died in a car crash), encouraged by his drama teacher, but whips up a storm of on-line chatter. When the truth comes out, the teacher is fired, but she still has a role to play in helping tie up the loose ends of the past.
It’s a clever enough creation, but in the same way as any number of fractured puzzle movies – you contrive some mishmash of family skeletons, mix it all up into incoherent pieces, then spend an hour and a half putting it back together, along the way working in some vague ‘commentary” on various themes that strike you as cool (post 9/11 paranoia; Middle East spillover; the limits of the Canadian melting pot; technology as both facilitator and distortion). None of these themes are explored with any dexterity. Egoyan’s way with actors is as heavy-handed as ever; he pushes them into unnaturalistic emoting and over-determined poses; it comes to feel as if you’re wading through treacle.
I don’t think I’m alone in my lack of enthusiasm for Egoyan’s movies – they nearly inevitably collect a dutiful three stars from the local critics, but the reviews themselves seldom read like the writers gleaned more than two stars’ worth of entertainment or enlightenment. There’s little warmth in his films, and little real respect for the audience; how little he must think we know, that we’d be somehow nurtured or elevated by such arch shuffling of the middlebrow card deck (we aren’t – the audiences are regularly miniscule, although somehow the financing keeps flowing, largely via sugar daddy Robert Lantos). Sadly, the immediate prospects don’t portend much better – his next film, Chloe, is a remake of Natalie, a would-be tantalizing French teaser that trudged its way to one of the least interesting (and most predictable) twists on record. Unless Egoyan has some revelatory new direction in mind, we might as well just throw it the three stars now and make other plans.
Michael Caine has never quite been among the greatest stars nor the greatest actors – for much of his career he seemed to thrive on the sheer implausibility of such a plain figure somehow making it as a leading man, and on the accumulated audacity of defying so many challenges to his credibility (The Swarm, Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, Jaws 4, etc etc.). He’s carefully honed his own image as a consummate technician and professional, doing master classes on acting and having the good luck to find a solid role at least every few years (just when it might seem, for the tenth time, that he’d finally sink into grim, Bullet to Beijing-type oblivion); along the way he picked up two Oscars for Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules, and even in his mid-70’s it’s far from impossible he might win another. But I think it’s fair to say his highs are only so high. His best performances are simply those in which he’s given the best things to say; he can’t transcend mediocre material as the best actors can. But, unlike many, he’s also consistently avoided getting crushed by it.
When I was a kid in the UK, Caine was everywhere – the likes of The Ipcress File clogged up the TV schedules; he was impersonated and parodied (in particular, for reasons lost to time, for supposedly overusing the phrase “and not a lot of people know that”); and, when he relocated to Hollywood for a few decades, he became a symbol of a failed Britain driving out its best and brightest. He might even do it again, based on his reaction to a recent British tax increase: “We've got three-and-a-half million layabouts laying about on benefits, and I'm 76, getting up at 6am to go to work to keep them.” It all helps keep his image colourful, as did the flamboyant disdain of the late Richard Harris, who called Caine “an over-fat, flatulent…windbag, a master of inconsequence now masquerading as a guru, passing off his vast limitations as pious virtues.”
Is Anybody There?
Well, when you add it all up, it’s been fun to follow Michael Caine for all these years, and I hope we’re not close to the end of it yet. His presence is certainly the main asset of the new Is Anybody There?, although there’s also director John Crowley, who made one of my favourite films of last year, Boy A (not that the two works have much in common, at least on the surface). He plays a retired musician, starting to lose his faculties, who enters a low-grade seniors’ home in mid-80’s England, eventually striking up a rapport with the owners’ 12-year-old son.
From that, you gather there’s a fair amount of inter-generational odd couple stuff. But the film gradually becomes quite provocative and convincing as a portrayal of pervasive (existential, mortal, personal) doubt, of strafing at the parameters you find yourself within (an especially apt theme for Britain at that time). The little boy is obsessed with ghosts, traces of which he tries to register on his tape recorder; instead, he catches his dad, a typical lightweight unable to grapple with the passing of time or possibilities, making a move on a young employee. Caine’s character can’t believe how he ended up no better than this. Other old people barely hang on round the film’s edges.
The picture finds a way to tie all this together, but the destination is probably less memorable than the journey (this, at least, might also be said for Boy A). Still, even at its most conventional, it confirms Crowley as a very skillful director. As for Michael Caine – he’s great, of course, in much the same way he always is. And I really don’t mean that to sound like damning with faint praise.