(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2004)
Some notes on four current movies.
Several reviewers have said that Spider-Man 2 may be the best comic book film ever made, and the praise is at the very least plausible. I guess I could spend a future article musing on why so many capable directors – Bryan Singer, Ang Lee, Christopher Nolan with the forthcoming Batman - seem gripped by the ambition to conquer this genre. I suspect the answer is not that encouraging for cinema’s future. Regardless, Spider-Man’s Sam Raimi is at the head of the class for now; he maximizes his film’s nuance and flourish, crams the movie with deft throwaways, and makes it look easy. In a performance for which the phrase “that’s why he earns the big bucks” might have been invented, Tobey Maguire is virtually mesmerizing, conveying Peter Parker’s full range of preoccupation and inner conflict without negating the character’s heroism. Audiences will lap up Parker taking his costume to the laundromat (the colour runs) or having to take the elevator to the ground after his powers temporarily desert him at the top of a building. My own favourite moment was the dumb ice-breaking joke that Alfred Molina throws out to the assembled audience before unveiling his history-making scientific breakthrough.
It goes wrong, of course, and Molina is transformed into the evil Dr. Octopus, robbing banks, planning an experiment that will blow up half of New York, and kidnapping Parker’s beloved Kirsten Dunst. But despite some good action scenes, the villain isn’t very significant to the film’s overall impact, making you wish that they’d gone one step further and jettisoned the convention altogether – that would have been truly radical. That aside, the film is still constricted by plotting that’s a bit too tidy, and it occasionally lapses into digital overkill. But after the way Ang Lee was utterly crushed in his attempt to intellectualize The Hulk, genre fans will probably find the limitations of Spider-Man 2 easy to ignore.
At one point in De-Lovely, Kevin Kline as Cole Porter takes a shot at Michael Curtiz’ Night and Day, the 1946 biopic that cast Cary Grant as Porter. In the circumstances, it struck me as a cheap shot. Curtiz, at least, could blame the restrictions of the studio system and of the times generally for his film’s deficiencies. But De-Lovely’s director Irwin Winkler surely has no one to blame but himself. A chronically inadequate filmmaker, Winkler’s approach to Porter is like playing In the Still of the Night on a power hammer.
The movie’s big advance over Night and Day lies in its ability to be open about Porter’s homosexuality, although given the scrubbed goings-on here, it’s a relative advance at best. Kline is stodgy and Ashley Judd, as his wife, a non-presence. But the film’s true failure lies in its approach to the music. Winkler frames the film with a bizarre structure in which the dying Porter has his life presented to him in a deserted theatre by some kind of supernatural emissary. In tandem with how many of the musical performances in the film are clearly in a modern idiom, and with such anachronistic but politically correct details as the large number of black faces in view, this might have heralded an arm’s length, essayistic approach. But then the rest of the movie is mainly a conventional, dreary trudge through the highlights of Porter’s biography. Some of the musical numbers, with middle-aged, graceless performers lumbering through leaden choreography, are as horrifying as anything you’ll see on screen this year.
The film hasn't the slightest insight into the man’s muse, his talents, his demons or his influence, and isn’t even clear on the most basic details of his life. I got no kick out of it.
Roger Michell’s film is one of the year’s most intriguing, subtle character studies. A woman in her sixties loses her husband during a trip from suburbia to visit their two adult children in London; unable to face going back home, she stays on in the city, and starts an affair with a building contractor who’s also bedding her daughter. The woman is played by Anne Reid, a little-known actress who’s absolutely remarkable here, allowing dowdy mumsiness and all-consuming sexuality to coexist not just in the same character, but often in the same moment. Without ever lapsing into being melodramatic or overtly conceptual, the film turns an archetype on its head – instead of a nurturing centre of stability, the mother becomes a transgressive force, with her children’s over-extended lives collapsing around her. The contractor, conceived as a Brando like force of nature, laps her up - sure, because he never turns down anything, but also because he’s touched and excited by a corresponding desire. It can’t last of course, but the film avoids easy outcomes, working towards an extremely well balanced outcome.
The Mother is, among other things, a comprehensive critique of the institution of marriage, and an alert portrayal of how London kills you (to cite an earlier film by screenwriter Hanif Kureishi). It’s an absorbing work in all respects, and director Michell (who made Notting Hill and Changing Lanes) brings to it a precise, slightly chilly style that’s right on the money.
If we didn’t have films as good as The Mother, we might not as easily recognize the limitations of films like The Clearing. Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge, it stars Robert Redford as a wealthy businessman kidnapped by struggling blue-collar Willem Dafoe, and Helen Mirren as his wife; the movie cuts between the two men trudging through the woods as Dafoe delivers Redford to his accomplices, and Mirren ‘s interactions with family and FBI.
The film doesn’t have a very satisfactory payoff in the usual action movie sense, and it’s appealing to view it as an existential creation in which the external drama is merely an index for an internal repositioning (or clearing, if you will) that forms the film’s real intent. If you look at it this way, the film’s use of Redford is rather interesting. Of all the great actor/stars from the 70’s, he’s the one who’s remained the most inscrutable, and The Clearing might be toying with his self-regard, confining his role almost entirely to flashbacks and deconstructing the character until there’s virtually nothing of him left.
It doesn’t really work though, because while Brugge (making his debut as a director here after being a producer on The Insider and others) has a reasonable feeling for cinema, he lacks a feeling for life. The film is academically interesting, but has not a single moment that’s unposed or allowed to spill outside the governing design.