Sunday, February 24, 2013

Christmas movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2005

 The Aviator
After the substantial disaster of Gangs of New York, I arrived at Martin Scorsese’s new film with some apprehension, but came away satisfied. Not that the film, an epic glide through Howard Hughes’ young adulthood, adds substantially to Scorsese’s oeuvre. The character has an intensity and obsessiveness approaching that of Robert De Niro’s classic antiheros, but Scorsese no longer seems sufficiently preoccupied (or self-aware, who knows)  to tap such classic feverish stylization; Leonardo DiCaprio is quite excellent as Hughes, but even at his most dysfunctional he’s far from the danger of a Travis Bickle. And while Scorsese can still put together stunning sequences, and dazzle you with his assurance and cinematic imagination, it’s all working here to a much more mellow end. Oddly enough, with its breeziness and romantic notion of flight, the film reminded me of DiCaprio’s last movie, Spielberg’s Catch me if you can, more than of Scorsese’s own films.
I think general audiences may be confused at the way the film plunges itself into Hollywood folklore – Hughes’ swashbuckling direction of the aerial epic Hell’s Angels; cameos by Gwen Stefani and Jude Law as Jean Harlow and Errol Flynn; a long treatment of the romance with Katharine Hepburn. Cate Blanchett plays Hepburn evocatively enough, but the film doesn’t convey much sense of how that relationship worked. And its trajectory into increasing madness and political machinations is distinctly familiar. Ultimately though, the film feels young and vigorous where Gangs was old and overwhelmed, and it’s never dull, but it doesn’t dispel the now long-established feeling that Scorsese’s best and most fitting context has been closed off, never to reopen.

The Phantom of the Opera
I love musical theatre, but I’ve never seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom on stage. Actually, the only Lloyd Webber show I’ve seen is Cats, the charm of which completely eluded me. So I can’t comment on the adequacy of Joel Schumacher’s film as an adaptation. My sense though is that it’s probably as good a job as could possibly have been done. The reader will detect a “but” coming, and here it is: the material seems to me inherently unsuitable for cinema, consisting of lumbering songs delivered in static settings of minimal dramatic consequence. Underneath all the dramatic bluster, this is thin stuff, and Schumacher’s ornamentation and filigree can do nothing to disguise that, especially since his cast is so lackluster. I don’t want to limit the possibilities of musical cinema, but the genre’s magic surely lies in the translation of inner emotional states into external movement; a classic moment like the title performance of Singin’ in the Rain strikes a symbiosis of performer and song and choreography and camera into an almost transfixing expression of heedless joy. To say the least, Schumacher’s film has nothing like that going on – the lousy songs, lousy performers and lousy overall conception don’t even fuse into an overall coherent lousiness.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Wes Anderson, director of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, takes a fall with this turgid take-off on Jacques Cousteau, starring Bill Murray as the captain of a sea-faring unit that travels the world and makes movies about it, but has now fallen on hard times. The diverse cast includes Owen Wilson as the pilot who may be his long lost son, Cate Blanchett as a TV reporter and Anjelica Huston as his wife. The film looks pretty much like Anderson’s previous films – colourful and well-mounted and with a liking for deliberately flat stagings including actors who look right into the camera; it’s never naturalistic but when the style works it strikes a synthesis between an evocative fictional world and cinematic knowingness. But in The Life Aquatic the approach resembles complacency, if not arrogance. The plotting is lazy and inconsequential, the characters are thinly conceived, and the film’s comic momentum sputters completely, fueled by deadpan tableaux and non-sequiturs which sometimes work through simple incongruity but absolutely never impress.

Bill Murray has been on a good run lately, but this film shows how his dryness can become merely dull, if not smug. The Zissou character surely has potential – with has-been status threatening, he’s tilting into aggression and empty self-mythologizing – but there’s no sign that either Murray or Anderson ever thought about this in coherent terms. The mythmaking is signaled further by the film’s creation of digitally created, deliberately too-cute-to-be-true fish and sea creatures, giving form to Zissou’s idealistic vision of his engagement with the ocean; a final sequence where the cast loads onto a tiny submarine and journeys to the ocean floor is shot like a disembodied dream. But even such relative highpoints are only interesting in theory rather than in practice. I called it arrogant because it’s manifestly obvious how Anderson overstates his understanding of and appeal to the audience, assuming that his idiosyncratic preoccupations are of self-evident interest to the rest of us.

Flight of the Phoenix

This is a remake of Robert Aldrich’s 1965 film about a desert plane crash; when the survivors realize there’s no hope of rescue, they build a new plane out of the remains of the old one. I haven’t seen that movie for a long time (although when I was growing up in the UK I think it played on the BBC every third week, rotating with The Great Escape and The Guns of Navarone) but for all the limitations of the time I think it had a gritty authenticity missing from John Moore’s new version. The new version has a terrific visceral rendition of the plane crash  - sitting a few rows from the front, it felt like I was going down with them – but after that its adherence to contemporary norms of pacing and slickness means that it never develops much sense of heat and fatigue, or of fear and hunger, or of time passing, or of the sheer unlikelihood of the whole enterprise. This is summed up in the moment when the finished Phoenix is completely buried in a sandstorm; momentarily losing hope, they then resolve to dig it out – and the movie cuts to the excavated, cleaned-up plane being tugged to the start of the runway.

The movie’s conveyor-belt quality is confirmed further by its impeccably B-movie cast – Dennis Quaid, Miranda Otto, Giovanni Ribisi, the guy from TV’s House, a couple of rappers, and no one else you’ve ever heard of (the original had James Stewart). None of them makes any impact- the unimaginative use of Quaid here compared to the current In Good Company (review coming next week) tells you a lot about the high versus the low end of mainstream filmmaking. Still, for all that, the film’s clunky momentum means it never comes close to being boring, and at the risk of seeming like so much Christmas viewing eroded my standards down to nothing, watching it the day after The Life Aquatic, I found its lack of pretentiousness distinctly refreshing.

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