Saturday, November 17, 2012

Easter movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2005)
A lot of new movies opening in the run-up to Easter – here are reviews of some of them.

Walk on Water

We see a reasonable number of Israeli films, and I can't recall one that failed to fascinate me (although the country’s best known director, Amos Gitai, seems to be running rather dry on inspiration).  Eytan Fox’s Walk on Water is more conventional than much of what we’ve seen from there, perhaps reflecting its director’s American upbringing. It’s basically a political thriller, following a Mossad agent assigned to track down an aging Nazi by posing as a tour guide for the Nazi’s grandson, who’s visiting Israel from Berlin. The agent is haunted by his wife’s recent suicide and disenchanted by what he sees as the mission’s irrelevance, and he’s both intrigued by the grandson’s benign approach to life and somewhat alienated by his open homosexuality. The trail leads to Germany, where the agent has his ultimate epiphany.

Walk on Water is consistently fascinating, taking some historically polarized coordinates and triangulating them into a cunning narrative of reassessment and renewal. As it goes on it starts to seem overly schematic, engineering a reversal between the grandson and the agent that doesn’t seem well grounded in what’s come before, and at the very end it reveals itself to be softhearted. But for me at least the knowing historical resonance (among much else, it’s an effective tourist guide to Israel) succeeds in lifting it onto a slightly higher level than it would otherwise occupy, and to the extent that its flaws seem rooted in the challenge of assimilating the complexity of the Jewish experience, even those are intriguing.

The Upside of Anger

Mike Binder’s film bursts with ambition, aiming for the emotional sweep of a Terms of Endearment. Joan Allen plays a mother of four daughters who goes off the deep end when her husband suddenly leaves – she hits the bottle big-time, takes on major diva tendencies, and falls into a messy affair with neighbour Kevin Costner, a former baseball star (this is a particularly blatant evocation of James L. Brooks’ film). The film crams a lot of incident into its two hours, allowing each of the four daughters a reasonably meaty subplot, all fitting round a general theme of how upheaval leads to greater self-definition. Sometimes – as in the strand about the gay youth who must prove himself through bungee jumping – it all seems rather weird and arbitrary, and as a whole it feels a bit as if Binder basically wrote and filmed whatever came into his head, relying mainly on the actors to provide overall coherence. Consequently, although the movie generally plays very well scene-by-scene, it’s rather bewildering as a whole, and an unconvincing and under explored final twist doesn’t help much. The performances are good though, although the unprepossessing 42-year-old Binder loses points by casting himself, Woody Allen-style, as a middle-aged Lothario who has an affair with 20-year-old Erika Christensen.


Danny Boyle’s career since Trainspotting has been through some odd twists and turns – A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, 28 Days Later. Like so many others, he has great technical facility, and his films all seem individually intelligent but limited, each suggesting that its maker must have achieved better elsewhere, but then you look at the oeuvre and conclude that actually he hasn’t. The new film Millions does nothing to change this – it’s basically beautifully made rubbish. Two kids find a bag of money and set out to distribute it through a mix of materialist self-interest and altruistic idealism, the catch being that Britain is days away from converting to the Euro and the money will imminently be worthless. The movie is chocked full of wonderful images and compositions, and fully deploys the younger boy’s guileless commitment; he’s obsessed with saints, many of whom appear in visions to counsel him along the way. It deftly balances childhood hopes and fears with mild suspense, mild comedy and uplifting images of inclusivity. I was consistently impressed, and consistently put off by the knowing whimsy; it seems to me exploitative and ultimately hollow, relating to nothing except its own pristine parameters.

The Ring Two

Hideo Nakata, who made the original cult Japanese movies, also directs this second American adaptation. The prologue is a direct continuation of the first film, with its videotape that brings death to all who watch it (unless they make a copy and pass it on), but the film soon settles into a narrower focus, seeming more reminiscent of The Exorcist as Naomi Watts tries to prevent the dead girl’s spirit from lodging itself inside her son. The film has some highly effective sequences (although potentially the most striking scene, an attack on a car by a herd of deer, is marred by questionable digital work), and although it gradually gets hi-jacked by the weight of its exposition (which of course, like most such movies, makes little sense), it always retains an intriguingly sparse, clinically brooding quality. It frequently suggests a potential in excess of what it delivers – the film is virtually sexless, and is overly clinical in depicting the mother and child relationship – but overall it’s an effective genre piece.

Bride and Prejudice

I wasn’t going to see Gurinder Chadha’s film, but since the Cumberland offered the Oscar-winning Canadian short Ryan as an added attraction, I eventually went along. Ryan is excellent, and I only wish it were longer. I should have quit while I was ahead. Bride and Prejudice, by any objective standard, is an abomination. No doubt it’s aiming for deliberate cheesiness in evoking Bollywood idioms, but it brings no analytical prowess or stylistic panache to the task whatsoever. The acting, writing and direction are all terrible, and the choreography has an almost surreal messiness. Worst of all though – repulsive in fact – is the film’s utter capitulation to materialism and self-indulgence; it looks favourably on a secondary character who basically sells herself to a complete buffoon for the sake of what promises to be a lushly barren life in California. I’m not saying this choice may not ultimately be tenable, but from a director of supposed feminist leanings (Chadha’s previous film was Bend it like Beckham) we’re entitled to at least a bit more rigour. The occasional pieties about “the real India,” given the context (any hint of deprivation is kept well at bay), make you want to vomit. I could go on in this vein, but searching for a positive note,  I’ll admit at least that the film’s strained decorousness – we never even see the romantic leads kiss – is somewhat endearing. I know some will read this and say I’m being too heavy on it, unable to submit to the fun, but the attitude behind this movie is truly doltish.

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