Saturday, January 19, 2013

July movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2006)
I feel over the years as if I’ve reviewed more of Woody Allen’s films than anyone else’s, which is a function of (a) him making more movies than anyone else, and (b) me being there for all of them. Everyone agrees that his work has declined in recent years, and virtually everyone agrees that last year’s Match Point represented an astonishing resurgence. I think this is a fair enough opinion, although that film is probably more impressive for Allen’s unprecedented self-reinvention than for its inherent qualities. It seems even more amazing after Allen’s new film Scoop, which sticks with Britain and some of the same cast and ideas, but turns out not much better than a standard lower-tier Allen comedy transplanted onto swankier accents.
This partly reflects the fact that, unlike Match Point, Scoop has Allen back in front of the camera, doing the kind of shtick he’s done for years. He’s a magician performing in London, who gets dragged into investigating a possible murderer with journalism student Scarlett Johansson, prompted from beyond the grave by dead journalist Ian McShane. If I remembered all of Allen’s films well enough, I think I might be able to demonstrate how every single element in Scoop is lifted from an earlier (and better) work. The opening scene of journalists swapping stories about a departed colleague recalls the framing device of Broadway Danny Rose, as do some of the affectations in Allen’s patter; the otherworldly stuff sometimes recalls Purple Rose of Cairo, more broadly there’s the link to the general premise of Manhattan Murder Mystery, and so on and so on. It seems like an oddly timid follow-up to Match Point, but I suppose it’s pointless to look for much shape to Allen’s ceaseless activity at this stage.

Anyway, I liked the movie more than most critics did; maybe just because I watch new Allen movies in the way you might pull Caddyshack off the shelf for the twentieth time; is it a new one or is it last year’s all over again, who cares, you remember the good years and drink your coffee and it all works fine. On this occasion he makes pleasant but undemanding use of Johansson, and I got a kick out of seeing him do his routines in front of mystified groups of toffy-nosed Brits. The movie does not have one iota of Match Point’s analytical interest in the British high class – it’s a big love fest. The ghost angle is under-developed and lazy, and it all ends rather abruptly, as though they simply ran out of money. The overall problem is that the film doesn’t betray any visual or thematic or intellectual or other kind of interest in anything really (except perhaps in Johansson herself), so that it barely matters if it’s set in London, or Manhattan, or on the moon.
Miami Vice
Only in the strange world of filmmaking could an artifact as accomplished as Miami Vice be regarded as coasting, but that’s how we should view it. This sprawling account of two cops cracking open an international drug ring is pretty much to director Michael Mann as Scoop is to Allen. Mann’s earlier Heat and The Insider made one of the finest one-two punches in recent American film, and his next film Ali was unfairly disregarded. Collateral, for all its virtues, was a retreat into simpler action material, and Miami Vice is a further leap down that road. Mann’s a great orchestrator though, and he’s radically rethought the original TV show (where he made his reputation): although the guys still dress like fashion models and live in impossibly high-end apartments, there’s nothing here of the “MTV cops” – this is a dark, insinuating, often almost abstracted version of the city.

And of life itself – as his budgets and canvases get larger, the core of Mann’s work narrows, honing his vision of men defined by action, with no personal lives beyond sexual interludes; Miami Vice’s most intriguing aspect is a hopeless romance between Crockett (Colin Farrell) and cartel queen Gong Li. Gong is magnificently resonant, but Farrell is generally affectless, and Jamie Foxx as Tubbs is given oddly little to do. Taking Mann’s use of the weak Farrell and his neutering of the charismatic Foxx (compared to, say, De Niro and Pacino in Heat) along with the plot’s frequent incoherence, it’s no surprise that you often feel you’re watching mere logistics – although in Mann’s hands that always seems intriguingly complex and adult, often even hinting at some kind of thematic greatness. But ultimately this material is incapable of supporting a breakthrough.

Two films about Africa

U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha, which won the top prize at last year’s Berlin film festival, is a transposition of Bizet’s Carmen, about the disastrous love between a young officer and a local goddess, into the present-day South African townships. The famous arias are intact, but the libretto has been translated and modified to suit the time and place, and that music often jostles for space on the soundtrack with indigenous sounds and with the clatter of everyday life. In many ways, despite the obvious abstraction of the exercise, this has a more authentic sense of its people and environment than the laboured, overpraised Tsotsi. And the project can be admired for its demonstration of the transferability and adaptability of the cultural canon and in particular for its validation of native South Africa as a safe repository for such works. That said, in some ways it’s more interesting as a theoretical exercise than as an achieved film. But the lead actress is certainly more than adequately magnetic, and it’s full of striking moments.

Finally, another film about Africa, about the tragedy not of the few but of the many, of a number and a pain greater than we can imagine. Michael Caton-Jones’ Shooting Dogs is about 1994 Rwanda, in particular about a Catholic-run school and makeshift UN enclave where 2,500 Tutsis came for shelter from the surrounding massacre, until the UN soldiers withdrew, leaving their charges to be slaughtered by the Hutus gathered outside. It’s a terrible story, and although the film does not spend much time analyzing global culpability (beyond the famous clip of the UN official tying herself in knots to avoid the term “genocide”), it’s impossible to watch it without wondering yet again how it is that our focus and collective energies have become so misplaced. The film is a chilling and convincing recreation, quite similar in many ways to Hotel Rwanda, although without even as many minor points of light: the UN here seems all but inert, without any of the moral identification of Nick Nolte’s Romeo Dallaire stand-in in the earlier film. That aside, Shooting Dogs is sometimes problematic in its focus on white English protagonists and their personal tortures. But what would ever be the “right” way of dealing with Rwanda?

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