Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In the trenches

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2006)

I was going to say that this week’s selection has something for everyone, but I see that I have no cartoons and no fluffy romantic comedies. That aside though, I think I’ve got it covered.

Perhaps strangely, I’ve never seen Wes Craven’s legendary The Hills Have Eyes (so many movies, so little time), but I’m sure it was more raw and provocative than Alexandre Aja’s new remake. Which is not to say that Aja’s film isn’t pretty good. It struck me as extremely proficient, deftly poised between seductive menace and slam-whoosh horror, as a family’s trailer breaks down in the desert, exposing them to crazed mutants left behind from 50’s nuclear experiments. Aja’s pretty unsparing with this stuff, although it ultimately focuses on a pretty familiar transformation of mild gun-loathing Democrat into bloodied axe-wielding revenger (for those who identified with my column of a couple of weeks back, it may be helpful to know that the resourceful dog Beast plays a big role in things). Potential undercurrents abound, although as subversive social commentary goes (and, for that matter, sheer nastiness) it doesn’t quite match the recent Hostel. Still, as they say, for those who like this sort of thing, this is definitely what they like.

The Old School

Even more horrible in its own esoteric way, Laurence Dunmore’s film The Libertine could almost have been explicitly conceived as the antithesis of Lasse Hallstrom’s recent sunny version of Casanova. In this version, the 17th century “pleasure” seeker – played rigorously by Johnny Depp – addresses the camera at the start to tell us we will not like him, and the film hardly ever dilutes that promise: it’s as miserable as anything you’ll see this year, suffused in a sickly green reflecting his inner decrepitude. It’s initially somewhat tedious, although always well written and true to its obscure project, but only becomes really fascinating as the character’s self-destructiveness bears a rotting fruit, with his face peeling away from the pox. For those who like this sort of thing…well actually, I’m not sure there’s any such group.

Meanwhile, over at the old school, 75-year-old director Richard Donner just delivered 16 Blocks, starring Bruce Willis, limping and creaking as if he’s in his eighties. In a retread of Clint Eastwood’s Gauntlet set-up, Willis is the unheralded New York cop who’s meant to deliver a witness (motor-mouth Mos Def) to the courthouse and has two hours to do it, but if the witness testifies, a lot of other cops go down, and they’re out to make sure he doesn’t make it. There’s very little surprising in the movie – except maybe the extreme paucity of lines given to the taciturn Willis – and it has limited energy for sure, but you know, I actually liked it. Admittedly it’s all pros and cons. Despite using Toronto to substitute for New York in some scenes, it has a good sense of the bustling street…but it’s unrealistic with its ticking clock conceit. The solid, unadorned nature of the action is an appealing contrast to so much contemporary digital overkill…but is it really worth the ten bucks? Maybe the movie’s most cutting-edge effect is in how it effortlessly prompts the following thought: Wait for the DVD rental.

Death and Dust

Nothing in 16 Blocks has the visceral impact of the opening scenes of Omagh, and how could it, for this is a recreation of a 1998 bombing that killed 29 people in Northern Ireland. Gerald McSorley plays a mechanic who lost his son, and was drawn into leading the families’ campaign for justice – a movement frustrated by evidence of institutional failures both in ignoring tip-offs prior to the bombing and in the subsequent investigation of it. McSorley’s quiet performance provides much of the film’s impact, for in truth, after the gripping beginning, Omagh is somewhat conventional in its approach, and doesn’t seem entirely equal to the immense complexity of its subject matter. As in so many such films, family dynamics are given perhaps excessive weight in the overall scheme. Still, it’s a sobering and instructive experience.

Back to the old school, although this one’s in a more refined part of town – Ask the Dust is only the fourth film directed by 71-year-old Robert Towne, who’s best known as a screenwriter. Based on a novel by John Fante, this project has long been a dream of Towne’s, and one senses a desire here to create something truly iconic about early 20th-century LA, just as he did with Chinatown. It’s about a romance between a struggling young writer (Colin Farrell) and a Mexican waitress (Salma Hayek) – their trajectory is familiar, but receives seasoning here in particular from the prevailing notions of ethnic propriety, which clash in particular with the woman’s strong will. Farrell is unfortunately bland, Hayek’s performance never really gels, and the movie around them – although handsome and careful - seems oddly under populated and disembodied. It’s as if Towne had already made the thing in his head too often, so that the passion dissipated, leaving little more than a skeleton.

Joyeux Noel

Joyeux Noel, directed by Christian Carion, was France’s entry for this year’s foreign language film Oscar. They should have nominated Cache. But as glossy middlebrow creations go, Joyeux Noel is not at all bad. In Christmas 1914, German and French and Scottish soldiers are mired in the trenches, so close they can hear into each others’ territory. Lured by Scottish bagpipes and a German soprano, they slowly venture into the intervening no man’s land, and suddenly hostilities are forgotten as they declare a makeshift truce, sharing rations and alcohol, participating in a joint Mass, playing soccer and collectively burying their dead.

The First World War was of course particularly brutal and callous, and the movie skillfully exploits the power of its central concept – petty moralizing and strategizing swept sway into a sea of interchangeable faces. The real impact though comes subsequently, when all three commanding officers are severely reprimanded. Most chilling is the Scottish bishop who sweeps onto the scene, sends packing the priest who ministered to the opposing troops, and delivers a substitute sermon. The war, he asserts, represents “the forces of good against the forces of evil…a crusade…to save the freedom of the world.” He commands them: “With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old…”

And here we are almost a century later, with God and other deities still as easily misappropriated for the sake of State-sponsored murder and cataclysm. Joyeux Noel can’t help but seem relevant, and while at least we’ve mostly moved beyond the particularly degrading combat tactics it depicts, this has done little to deflate mass gullibility, as seen in the broad willingness to subjugate all other issues or imperatives to neurotic notions of national security. I’m aware that I’m spilling a little beyond my mandate here, which I suppose is just a way of saying that the film’s messaging works, in an old school kind of way. 

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