Sunday, April 8, 2012

More Big Movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2004)

There have been lots of good movies lately. Among those I liked but didn’t have time to review were the Golden-Globe winning Afghan film Osama, Michael Winterbottom’s In This World, and Nathaniel Kahn’s Oscar-nominated documentary My Architect. Those three are already on their way out of theaters, but here are four notable works that should still be around when this article appears.


David Mamet is a vastly resourceful playwright, whose work in the theatre carves out a dazzling niche of compulsive, compromised behaviour. His first few films as a director – House of Games, Things Change – seemed to be an extension of this oeuvre, albeit with a beginner’s fascination with the tools and techniques of cinema often crowding out thematic and psychological interests. But with The Heist and now Spartan, he seems embarked on a new project, to become a lean, terse action craftsman of superior plotting skills. It reminds me of how Robert De Niro, around the time of Ronin, seemed to become primarily interested in submerging himself beneath genre mechanics.

Mamet’s new film, about the kidnapping of a President’s daughter and the secret service men on her trail, has as many imaginative twists and turns as his previous work, but other than a general notion of disillusionment with political institutions, it’s hard to glean much of a subtext from it. Which isn’t a huge problem in a movie as well sustained as this one. The film is violent, dark, and well-acted (the star is Val Kilmer) and the dialogue – by Mamet standards – is so toned down that when he slips in one of his traditional high-concept phrases it almost sounds out of place. Bonus element; although the President and his venal advisors are fictional, it sure feels like an acerbic projection about the current administration.

Monsieur Ibrahim et les fleurs de Coran

Francois Dupeyron’s French film might be taken merely for a curio – an increasingly odd story of a teenager, largely ignored by his anguished single father, who falls under the wing of a local “Arab” shopkeeper (played by Omar Sharif in his best role in years). Initially, it’s a slice of 50’s life, permeated in period music and the delights of street bustle - particularly the local whores on whom the kid spends every available franc. But as it goes on, and Sharif’s behaviour becomes odder, it takes on peculiar psychological undercurrents, some of which are never fully explained. Certainly, to a degree, the film is about how the life of the imagined, of the self defined, may be as real as the physical – indicated in ways from the invention of major life details, to quirky details such as Sharif telling the kid to serve cat food to his father and tell him it’s pate (it goes down pretty well). The ending has its regressive aspects, but also seems to me a delightful fusion of the film’s multiple strands. On the whole, it’s a very subtle work, working in a familiar emotional register, drawing in ideas we’ve seen a hundred times, but investing them with a very distinctive panache and abandon.

Goodbye Lenin

Wolfgang Becker’s comedy was a big hit in its native Germany – not a surprise, since it deftly exonerates them for much of their post-war history. It’s 1990 in East Germany, and a young man’s aging mother, devoted to her homeland’s socialist ideals, suffers a heart attack when she sees her son participating in a protest march. She’s in a coma for eight months, during which that wave of protest becomes tidal, resulting in the Berlin wall coming down and in the rapid Westernization of the East. Miraculously, she wakes up, but when he’s told another shock will kill her, the son decides to hide the news of what’s happened outside, enlisting family and friends to help him pretend the Erich Honecker regime is still going strong. It’s fairly easy as long as she stays bedridden in one room, but as she recovers her strength the signs of change become unavoidable to her. He can only reconcile all this with his lie by taking the story in a dramatic new direction – that the East is actually triumphing in the ideological war, and the signs of encroaching pop culture are the detritus of refugees fleeing from the West. Key to the deception is the help of a video buff friend who patches together increasingly convoluted fake news bulletins, absorbed by the old woman with growing amazement.

It’s an effective conceit, although as it goes on the movie seems to reflect a strain similar to that experienced by the protagonist – you get the feeling that the filmmakers barely avoided writing themselves into a corner. They deserve credit for pulling that off, but not for the film’s consistent avoidance of anything resembling real bite. The movie allows the West all its triumph, while throwing the East some pretty substantial bones of comfort, but lost in this clever calculation, aside from anything resembling a political analysis, is any concerted acknowledgment of the devastating human cost of those forty wasted years (the subplot with the father who skipped to the other side, leaving wife and children behind, plays in a predictably sentimental manner). I know there’s no reason to feel guilty at having a generally undemanding good time at such a movie – the Germans obviously didn’t – but there’s no reason either to pretend that it amounts to much more than that.

Love, Sex and Eating the Bones

A rare mention for a Canadian film – a low-budget one that actually had a run at the Paramount. Directed by Sidz Sutherland, it’s the amiable chronicle of a young would-be photographer, making ends meet as a security guard, who falls in love with a gorgeous marketing manager. The only trouble is – he’s a pornography addict who can’t function any more without his tapes, and she’s a conservative type coming off two years of chastity. The film has lots of conventional plotting and somewhat lame-brain ideas – the fantasy sequences featuring his favourite porn star seemed particularly strained to me – but it has lots of humanity, and there’s something weirdly appealing about a comedy built so explicitly around dysfunction. His admission that he “likes to watch,” coupled with the fact that both his day job and his calling are equally visually-oriented, suggest that the film could have ended up as a weird variant on Peeping Tom. In the end it avoids that kind of darkness, but not before charting some unusual territory. The movie uses Toronto locations in a nice understated way and the cast is highly effective. I’ve often wished that Canada could have its own Truffaut or Woody Allen to match the darker talents of Egoyan or Cronenberg – Sutherland isn’t that yet, but he might be the best current hope.

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