Saturday, November 30, 2013

Fall movies, part one

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2006)

Here’s some of the stuff I saw, and didn’t write about, during that run of film festival articles. My favourite was Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, an extremely personal film about a young Mexican man living in Paris, who habitually confuses the boundaries between dream and reality. It’s an utter delight - the kind of film that’s so packed with invention and non-linear creativity that you wonder how any human mind ever arrived at it. But it never feels like a mere jaunt, partly because the complex romantic relationship at its centre (beautifully incarnated by Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg) is so scintillatingly conceived. Gondry’s last film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had greater scope perhaps, but this is the one where he really got to me.

Movie Magicians

The Illusionist is a further distressing sign for Edward Norton’s career – a minor tale of a turn of the century magician who must outsmart nobility and the police to win the woman he loves. With thin period flavour, and a main cast drenched in contemporary resonance, the film has some beguiling scenes but ultimately only limited tricks up its sleeve. Christopher Nolan’s glossy The Prestige has two turn of the century magicians, and a lot more going on besides: Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale feuding onstage and off, David Bowie playing Nikola Tesla, Scarlett Johansson strutting around in skimpy outfits, and a narrative that never lets five minutes go by without pulling a new rabbit out of its hat. I wish it amounted to more, but I did admire the sleight of hand.

Brad Freundlich’s Trust the Man inspired a reverie in me, about how the film might have been one of those countless middlebrow sex comedies from the mid-70’s, directed by someone like Herbert Ross, perhaps starring George Segal, Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon and Tuesday Weld. It would have seemed mildly daring at the time, but not enough that anyone would remember it now. Just like Trust the Man itself has already been justly forgotten. Conversations with Other Women, directed by Hans Canosa, sticks closely to Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham-Carter as former lovers who meet again at a wedding. The film’s gimmick is its use of a split screen throughout, one side mostly focusing on him and the other on her, but Canosa should have been far more precise in deploying this technique, if the intention was to yield any insight into conflicting perspectives.

Idlewild is a strange concoction, with Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton of Outcast in a 20’s gangster creation – sometimes it’s giddily surreal and anachronistic, and at other times ploddingly straight-faced. The best parts, inevitably, are the musical numbers, and the movie makes dazzling use of the digital mixing board, but it’s just not coherent enough to inspire real enthusiasm. Even stranger is Shadowboxer, the story of how a troubled hitman puts his life in order (sort of). The movie is perverse, sadistic, messy and often silly, but it does have some ideas you’d never thought of before (like the sexual pairing of Cuba Gooding Jr and Helen Mirren, that kind of thing) and it does make sense in a shameless kind of way. The only film more disparaged than Shadowboxer in the last few months may have been Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man. The horror-thriller is hardly the cerebral LaBute’s natural territory, and the film feels as if he talked himself into too many compromises; still, at its heart it’s an intriguingly weird extension of his persistent interest in the fraught relationship between the sexes.


Terry Gilliam’s Tideland (another contender in the high disparagement stakes) finally opened after playing at the 2005 film festival – I went on Monday evening, and shared the theatre with one other man (so much for Gilliam’s “cult” status). 11-year-old Jodelle Ferland occupies virtually every scene as a girl led by rampantly bad parenting into a grotesque fantasy existence, and then she comes to live on the plains, where the surrounding reality is nuttier than what’s in her head. The movie is extravagantly off-putting, and knowingly punishing on the audience; the rejection of normal behavioural and narrative norms is so extravagant that it strikes me as immensely brave. It’s certainly the least sentimental film about childhood that I can think of at this moment.

The Brazilian House of Sand is about three generations of women forced by circumstance into a remote life among endless sand dunes, all but lost to civilization. Pictorially it can’t miss, and it’s never less than intriguing, but it doesn’t yield much thematic depth overall. Half Nelson, about the relationship between a drug-addicted teacher and one of his pupils, is less compelling than reviews suggested, but still has many virtues, such as Ryan Gosling’s resourceful performance, and the intriguing attempt to portray his malaise as a response to thwarted liberal idealism.

Hollywoodland, about an investigation into the apparent suicide of 50’s Superman actor George Reeves, is interesting enough scene by scene, but adds absolutely nothing to the unnecessarily large canon of Hollywood movies about Hollywood. Better this though than Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, another Hollywood murder mystery, in which various De Palma “touches” can’t come close to rescuing an inert whole. Barry Levinson’s Man of the Year, a mild comedy about a Jon Stewart-type who runs for President and unexpectedly wins, makes the same mistake as All the King’s Men – not enough time on the intriguing central concept, and too much on stupid subplots (in this case a stunningly implausible concoction about voting machine gremlins); I liked it more than most critics though, if only out of sympathy for its underlying despair about the state of the system.

Dead on Arrival

The controversial Death if a President was Dead on Arrival. The evocation of a Bush assassination, (in October 2007 Chicago – want to bet Bush gives Illinois a wide berth all through next fall?)  is effective enough, but having come up with this audacious premise, the film illustrates strangely limited ambition, only sketchily setting out successor President Cheney’s follow-up agenda, and concentrating instead on the rush to justice in finding a politically palatable assassin. It’s remarkable how boring it all gets, and as many of the fake talking heads are allowed to over-emote, its grip steadily weakens. The biggest irony, after all the unseen condemnation, is that the movie contains far more praise than criticism of Bush, taking on hilariously excessive dimensions in Cheney’s eulogy (actually lifted from the one he gave Ronald Reagan).

For a certain crowd, Stephen Frears’ The Queen must be the season’s crowd pleaser, as Elizabeth and newly-elected PM Tony Blair play out a very delicate battle of wills in the days after Princess Diana’s death. The film is really just a well-mounted curiosity with nothing very profound to say, but it’s very cannily put together, avoiding possible pitfalls in all directions, and benefiting in particular of course from Helen Mirren’s likely Oscar winning performance. Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, bedecked in bright colours and conspicuous consumption, always feels vaguely silly and flighty, and yet it’s not ineffective in conveying a notionally powerful woman trapped by custom and ideology, displacing her frustration into building herself the prettiest of cages.

More to come!

Friday, November 29, 2013

The old-timer Oscars

In recent years, my favourite part of the Oscars has become the special awards voted by the governors of the Academy “to honor extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.”  I tend to think of them as the old-timer Oscars, although this year’s choices show they’re not always that. This year I knew what day they were being decided, and amused my wife while we were on vacation by constantly checking out the Hollywood Reporter website for news; it ended up being announced a day later than expected, apparently due to difficulties in notifying some of the recipients, which only prolonged the idiocy.

Angela Lansbury

When it finally came out, it wasn’t a bad list, even if I wouldn’t personally have chosen any of the names on there. The traditional old-timer award went to Angela Lansbury, who of course everyone knows and loves. She’s been unsuccessfully nominated for Oscars three times, as far back as 1944, so the lifetime achievement case is evident. My reservation would be that her contribution to cinema is pretty thin: she got off to a fast start, but soon moved primarily to television and theatre for two decades, with The Manchurian Candidate (another of her nominations) as her only movie highpoint. She had another flourish in the 70s, but only in easygoing or prematurely aged stuff like Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Agatha Christie mysteries, before returning to TV (eighteen Emmy nominations without a win, mostly for Murder she Wrote) and the stage again (five Tony awards). To sum up, the movies probably don’t have that much to do with why people know and love her.

For that reason, I’d have been more likely to give the award to more purely cinematic icons. My own favourite choice would be Catherine Deneuve, although she’s worked almost exclusively outside Hollywood. Doris Day is often mentioned – she was the top box-office star for several years, and was nominated once for best actress – but perhaps her long retirement somehow removes her from consideration, not that it should. Good arguments, of different kinds, could be made for Albert Finney (five losing nominations, going back to 1963), Burt Reynolds (not so much artistic respect, but a healthy rein as a top star, and one losing nomination, although probably sullied in the Academy’s eyes by his long stagnation) and dozens of others. George Segal’s body of peak-career work, to cite a personal favourite, is much stronger than Lansbury’s, but I doubt if anyone with a vote remembered that.

Steve Martin

The next recipient, Steve Martin, came as a bit of a surprise, if only because he doesn’t seem like enough of an old-timer – he’s 68, but it’s all relative. Martin is a comic icon and a class act, but similar to Lansbury, it’s questionable whether his work in movies is the largest part of that. Too often, he’s seemed to be coasting through second-rate material while saving his main creative energies for his books, screenplays, music projects and even talk show appearances, where he’s almost always funnier than in most of his pictures (it no doubt helps the case that he’s hosted the Oscars three times). In terms of close contemporaries, Bill Murray’s body of film work is much stronger than Martin’s is. Still, it’s hard to feel too bad about Steve Martin getting an Oscar, if only for his “anecdote” about how he made Jack Lemmon’s career by persuading Billy Wilder to cast Some Like it Hot with two men rather than two women.

By choosing 86-year-old Piero Tosi, the Academy cleverly ticked off three boxes at once. First, they awarded another chronic near-misser – Tosi has five unsuccessful nominations. Second, they showed it’s not just about Hollywood – all five nominations were in foreign films (Tosi has never worked in an American movie – in fact, he’s reportedly never been to the US at all!). Third, they shone the rotating spotlight on one of the technical categories (last year, for instance, they recognized a stuntman; before that, make-up) – this year, costume design. Taking all that in the aggregate, it’s hard to see anyone objecting. Now, it’s also hard to see many people having strong pro-Tosi feelings: the costumes from Death in Venice are hardly the branch of world cinema most crying out for recognition. I already mentioned Deneuve, but how about still-living giants like Jacques Rivette and Alain Resnais? But given the presumed strategic underpinnings of the choice, I guess this was never going to be a Tosi vs. Rivette showdown.

Angelina Jolie

Finally, Angelina Jolie was chosen for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, given “to an individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.” The citation refers to her as, among other things, an “impassioned advocate for humanitarian causes, traveling widely to promote organizations and social justice efforts such as the Prevent Sexual Violence Initiative.” Of course, Jolie is dramatically far from any old-timer status – she’s only 38. It’s remarkable, given her wild-child not-so-distant past, that she so rapidly remade herself as to be chosen for what is, in effect, the ultimate mark of class; held up as the most glittering embodiment of the industry’s grace and benevolence. For a point of comparison, Jerry Lewis spent decades as a passionate advocate for his chosen cause, but had to wait until he had one foot in the grave to receive the Hersholt award, probably because of the crass, if not creepy, aspects of his particular style of advocacy. The Academy’s vision for the award is best illustrated by its recent choice of Oprah Winfrey, even though she barely qualifies as “an individual in the motion picture industry.” It wouldn’t be such a surprise if, say, Kate Middleton received the award in the near future. Anyway, judged by that standard, Jolie appears to be a deserving winner, and it wouldn’t be a great surprise if her partner Brad Pitt (and for that matter, Clooney and Damon and the whole gang) picked up the same award in coming years.

The Governors’ awards were presented at a banquet the other week, but sadly, that event is never televised, and reportedly is all the better for it: we just get brief extracts during the main ceremony in February, as a respite from the eye-rolling choices in regular categories and the time-filling contrivances. Writing on this same topic a couple of years ago, I evoked the joke about how the title of “World’s oldest person” must be jinxed because the recipients never seem to live for very long afterwards. Maybe a couple of this year’s choices indicate a reluctance to get stuck in that morbid territory, which is fair enough. Still, if you think of “people with Oscars” as the world’s most exclusive movie club, it’s one in which veterans like Paul Mazursky, David Lynch, Gena Rowlands, Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Jeanne Moreau, Harvey Keitel, Nick Nolte, Harry Dean Stanton (yeah!) and our own Donald Sutherland deserve to spend a few of their golden years, so that’s what I’ll be rooting for. Once they’re all in the club, I’ll start rooting for Kate Middleton.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Movies I haven't seen

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2009)

Anyone who has a movie column can write about the stuff they’ve actually seen – that’s just so old hat. So here’s another installment of my occasional alternative, devoted to current and recent movies I haven’t seen. That’s how you test your writing chops!

Capitalism: a Love Story (Michael Moore)

I’m sure I’d fall within Michael Moore’s target demographic, but it’s been years since I got much out of his films. More and more, they seem designed for left-wing progressives who rely solely on Moore himself for the bulk of their information; on a recent Canada AM appearance he made a big show of insisting his film is not entertainment but “news.” Reviews suggest Moore gets in a few good shots at the mess we’re in, but also that he contradicts himself all over the place, and offers no coherent suggestions on where we should go instead. I’m sure this is correct, since it’s exactly how Fahrenheit 911 and Sicko functioned. The best take on Moore has him as a kind of political performance artist, and his excesses and quirks as elements in a multi-faceted dialectical collage, but even if you buy that, the return on this project is getting stretched pretty thin.

Everyone has their own take on the financial crisis it seems, but what preoccupies me is the inherent contradiction facing us now: maximizing our personal security surely depends on living within our means, avoiding debt and seeking out smaller, more intimate pleasures; but our collective welfare demands that we borrow and spend and stoke the economy, regardless that the fuel consists largely of consumer crap we don’t need. It’s clear no one has an answer to this dilemma, and it’s a huge indictment of our leaders that beyond insultingly vague references to “change” and “new economy” and the like, they just ignore it. This is just one reason to fear a brutal pending renegotiation of what sustainable happiness might mean in the 21st century. I certainly haven’t revolutionized my own life, but I’ve been cutting back quite a bit on unnecessary expenditures, and it’s finally broken my susceptibility to the movie-marketing machine. No matter how intrigued one might be by (say) The Invention of Lying, it’s impossible to say there’s any hardship involved in waiting six months or a year until it’s available in a cheaper format. Of course, the industry would collapse if everyone applied that philosophy, but that’s why the endless cycle of box office news and hype and manufactured excitement is all about Hollywood’s commercial needs, not our own. Given the wealth of filmic history available basically at your fingertips, no one needs to pay $12 (plus incidental costs) to see a new movie. Only a self-serving capitalist would even expect it of them. So, logically, Michael Moore ought to be gratified by his movie’s relative box office failure. Actually, maybe in his next film he could take on the genuinely important subject of why we confuse a fixation on self-promoting showmen with actual news. I’ll catch that effort on cable too, eventually.

Jennifer’s Body (Karen Kusama)

A potent example of why not to believe everything (or anything) you hear at the film festival. At that opening Midnight Madness Ryerson theatre screening, with Megan Fox and Diablo Cody on a red carpet virtually levitating from the surrounding frenzy, this looked like a major cultural event – hot new star, hot writer, hot feminist premise…watching the build-up on the 11pm news that night, I nearly put my clothes back on and headed down there myself. And then the movie actually came out a week later, and died – no one cared (see also the case of Drew Barrymore’s Whip It). Everyone smelled the plasticity of it, and then word got out Megan Fox didn’t do any real nudity, so that was the final killer. Even if she did, it would have been all over the Internet for free - anti-piracy measures be damned! – so the movie would still have flopped.

One problem, you know, is that maybe TV’s gotten too good. If you’re into True Blood and The United States of Tara and Big Love (to name just three shows with some thematic or personal connection to Jennifer’s Body), then you’re probably culturally pretty satiated already. I know not everyone can afford premium cable. But if they stopped paying $12 a shot for dispensable movie theater visits, they’d be on the road to putting that right.

The Boys

Whatever its failings might be, at least Capitalism: a Love Story is about something important. But there’s an almost perverse sweetness in putting out a documentary about the veteran songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, known for their work on Disney movies like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book. I mean, what could possibly emerge about the Sherman brothers that you would ever need to know? Choosing to see this film would be like finding yourself in a vast blooming flower garden, in which you suddenly and stubbornly decided to spend an hour and a half staring solely at a single rather faded tulip.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Well what am I, 8?

Coco Avant Chanel (Anne Fontaine)

Well what am I, 80?

Where the Wild Things are (Spike Jonze)

Even a year ago, I would have gone to see this: it has a good number of big name critics lined up in support, a fashionable young director, and a colourfully protracted production history, and it opened at number one at the box office. Traditionally, that’s easily been enough for me to get into line.  And that’s even though I never read the Maurice Sendak book, so would get nowhere on the apparent core pleasure of assessing to what extent Jonze may have captured/expanded on how one engaged with it as a child. Even though I never liked Jonze’s two previous films (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) as much as many did. And even though, basically, I just don’t give a damn about any of it. Well, that’s what I would have done last year. But now, if I haven’t tamed my inner wild thing, I’ve at least shaken up its sense of priorities a bit.

Eating Buccaneers (Bill Keener)

Despite all that, I do think I should support Canadian film more than I do – especially Toronto film. For example, I liked Ed Gass-Donnelly’s This Beautiful City last year, and then because it was nurtured so close to home, liking it almost counted double. Keener raised the money for this film – a comedy about advertising people wandering in a jungle after a plane crash – himself and shot it in Toronto. The enterprise is completely admirable. The end result, according to the critics, fails almost completely. Perhaps the best compromise would be to send Keener an appreciative note and a small donation, without actually spending the time to see the movie. Haven’t got round to it yet though.

Beautiful women

Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color won the Golden Palm at this year’s Cannes festival, with the jury (headed by Steven Spielberg) unusually including the two lead actresses, Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, in the award citation. It wasn’t the most popular of choices: some called it a masterpiece, but others saw only a more artful gloss on the same old story of a male director indulging his fantasies of beautiful women. This line of criticism gathered some ammunition when a public spat developed between the three: they accused him of cruel and dictatorial behaviour; he responded defensively and petulantly, even suggesting at one point that the film shouldn’t be shown anymore. In a somewhat odd Globe and Mail piece, Liam Lacey purported to advise Kechiche on behaving more “like a media-wise North American,” with talking points on how he might reclaim the narrative. Sample advice: he “should point out that personality clashes often lead to great work: Stanley Kubrick and Shelley Duvall in The Shining, or Frances Ford Coppola and Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.”

Blue is the Warmest Color

It might seem a bit odd that in defending an intimate French film about a young woman’s life experiences, one would cite two of the most dominating edifices of mayhem in modern American cinema. Or maybe that inadvertently points to the film’s recurring problem, that just as Kubrick and Coppola’s works might be judged as knowing apotheoses of the horror and war genres respectively, Kechiche seems to have set out to create a kind of greatest hits album of young contemporary lesbianism. Here, among much else, is Adele’s initial unsatisfactory sex with a boyfriend; the unexpected first kiss from a female classmate that gets her mind running; the first nervous venturing into a gay bar; the falling in love with a more experienced and worldly girl, Emma; the wonderful lesbian sex (lots of it), and then the bumpier relationship terrain thereafter. Adele and Emma are both gorgeous, and there’s hardly an ugly person in sight elsewhere either; everything is softly and seductively orchestrated in typically “French” style, with lots of talk about art and literature and philosophy. It’s an alluring creation if you just let it wash over you (which it does somewhat slowly, given the three hour running time), but is there anything here warranting much more attention than that?

Taking down the film in Film Comment, Amy Taubin wrote that the film lacks “recognizable contemporary young women, regardless of their sexual preference” and added: “more than 40 years of struggle over the representation of women seems to have made no impression on Kechiche.” The latter point seems fair to me – if you have qualms about films that define women by their physicality and sexuality to a degree that men rarely have to endure, you won’t find much consolation here. The former point, insofar as I can judge, is probably well-grounded too, but that might almost be cited as a strength. Throughout, Kechiche is vague about the passage of time: some important aspects of Adele’s life (like her hiding her sexuality from her family) are in focus for a while, but then they’re dropped; such indicia of the modern world as smartphones are oddly absent (perhaps the film is notionally set slightly in the past, it’s hard to tell). If the film is anything, it’s an immersion in Adele, an expression of the eternal (rather than contemporary) pleasure of losing oneself in the ambiguous interplay of actress and character.

Watching Adele

To that end, the previously unknown Exarchopoulos is a near-mesmerizing presence, making Adele’s development from teenager to young woman not just psychologically but also physically convincing. The early scene where she first sees Emma on the street, and instantly feels something, might have constituted the hoariest of clichés, except that Adele visibly blushes at the strange intensity of her feelings; it doesn’t sound like much, except you realize how seldom you see such a thing in a film. When she tears up, as she often does, her nose runs; her hair is almost a character in itself. Emma is an artist, and happy to immerse herself in the infrastructure of chatter and connections and self-branding that goes along with that, but Adele – again rather unusually in cinema – is an intelligent enough woman who’s knowingly set her sights on a “small” but manageable career, to teach young children. Emma tells her she should try writing something more ambitious than her diary, but she doesn’t want to; she’s not interested in getting to know Emma’s circle of friends. Although Emma’s course may be more impressive by the usual measures, certainly by the measures of art cinema, Adele appears to have a better sense of her own needs and limits.

Emma is the more “obvious” gay woman, as coded by her hair, her style of dress and general worldview, but ultimately we see how this might limit her capacity for self-determination and individuality. It’s harder to categorize Adele – the sense is that her next relationship might be either male or female, depending how the chemistry strikes her; it doesn’t seem like something that preoccupies her. The film doesn’t try to pretend that such matters don’t matter anymore – when Adele’s friends initially suspect her of having something happening with another woman, they’re as annoyingly obnoxious about it as you’d expect of a not yet fully liberal environment, and as I mentioned, she takes pains (at least for a while) to shield her relationship from her family, and from her colleagues.

Human mysteries

Yet these frictions only add to the satisfaction of the human mystery. Taubin is right that this falls short of documentary realism – Adele feels like a brilliant creation, a product of artistic alchemy. But such star-filtering machinery has always been a central pleasure of narrative cinema; maybe Blue is the Warmest Color works best if one thinks less about the modern world and more about old actress-infatuated melodramas (perhaps even all the way back to Louise Brooks, one of whose films plays in the background in one scene).

In that regard, the film has its fair share of the contrivances we associate with that genre, which only adds to the sense of limits. Lacey sees Adele as Kechiche’s alter ego, “an outsider who overreaches and missteps, who gambles recklessly and tries to play the wild card,” and this vaguely captures the movie’s teeming, overflowing quality. But in other respects, the film doesn’t feel reckless at all – those quasi-notorious sex scenes could hardly be more precisely calculated. Which brings us back to Taubin’s blistering critique, in which she blasts – again, not unconvincingly - Kechiche’s “stunning lack of awareness” of the operation of his own film’s structure. We end up with an odd picture of the director: an ungainly mélange of gambler, artist, tyrant and idiot. Whatever that adds up to, it’s indeed not a media-wise North American, and we can be thankful for that.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Meal time

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2007)

If movies are in any way a barometer for the pervasive concerns of our times, we will surely see many more movies like 28 Weeks Later. We had another one a few months ago – Children of Men. That one had a greater veneer of respectability, but the basic vessel is the same: a recognizable Britain of the near future, teetering under a cataclysmic peril, in which the recognizable settings and artifacts and attitudes of our time become derelict. In Children of Men it was mass sterility; in 28 Weeks Later it’s a virus that turns people into zombies. That sounds like it gives the first film the edge on plausibility, and yet I found the zombie movie more uncomfortably immediate.

28 Weeks Later

It’s a sequel to 28 Days Later, where the virus escaped from a chemical lab and spread exponentially; it’s perhaps best remembered for the stunning scenes of Cillian Murphy walking alone through an intact but deserted London. The film’s masterstroke was in confining the outbreak to Britain, so that one could imagine the rest of the world watching in horror, counting their blessings and computing the new global balance. In the new film the epidemic seems over and the American army has moved in, starting to repatriate Britons who survived abroad; it focuses on a survivor played by Robert Carlyle, reunited with his two kids in a central London quarantine zone. Of course, the virus reemerges, and then we’re (to cite yet another echo) in a Land of the Dead-type set-up, with a fragile, beleaguered stability collapsing traumatically on itself.

It’s an extremely gripping, scary film, directed to the hilt by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. The biggest flaw is that even by genre standards the plot turns on a staggering amount of coincidence, but it is about zombies after all. And it draws on what I personally rank as the most legitimate paranoia of our time – that all this infrastructure simply can’t be sustained. Whether through slow environmental degradation or something more dramatic, there’s a staggering realignment ahead, in which the piddling preoccupations of our time will seem with hindsight as classically misaligned as any amount of fiddling while the city burns. Some people have compared the film – mainly by virtue of the American occupation – to a parable on Iraq, but the implications seem to me much worse than that.


John Carney’s Once is a movie with just about no implications. People love this film. The New York Times’ excellent A. O. Scott says that it “understands…everyday pop magic about as well as any movie I can think of” although he also shrewdly acknowledges “some danger that the critical love showered on Once will come to seem a bit disproportionate.” Take for instance The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips: “Once may well be the best music film of our generation.” Well, I’ve written before about the parched state of that genre.

Once is a nice enough little picture. A struggling street musician/vacuum cleaner repairman meets an equally hand-to-mouth Czech immigrant single mother – he plays guitar; she’s a pianist; they start making music together; but will it amount to more? It lasts less than a song-crammed hour and a half, and it’s very freshly observed. I especially liked the way it shows their living spaces and the daily calculations of survival – you hardly ever see this kind of deglamourized (without being aesthetically over-deglamourized, if you know what I mean) stuff in movies.

But much of what people like about the film just didn’t click with me. I didn’t much like the songs for one thing – they seemed to me nice enough, but in a strained, writerly kind of way (they all have titles like “Falling Slowly” and “If You Want Me”). Lead performer Glen Hansard, despite an intriguing air of suppressed pain, equally seemed to me to be trying a bit too hard. And the air of realism evaporates at the end, with both characters pulling relationship rabbits out of a hat that seemed impossible based on information we were given earlier, and an extravagant financial outlay that equally makes no sense. Of course, even the greatest musicals committed greater sins of realism than that, but I think they were going for a different formula of artifice and connection. Once is an easy film to watch (once, anyway), with lots of nice moments, but yep, the critical love is disproportionate.


Talking of the eternal appeal of watching people fall in love, William Friedkin’s Bug is another story of two unfulfilled people finding each other. And there the similarity ends. Friedkin is of course the Oscar-winning director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, who’s plodded since then through thirty indifferent years (the low point perhaps being The Guardian, which is about a killer tree). Bug scores pretty high in the Friedkin oeuvre, if only because it’s the most sophisticatedly rancid material he’s been handed since The Exorcist. Those two unfilled people, played by Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, quickly evolve move past their initial tentative, grateful connection, as he reveals himself bug-obsessed: in particular, he’s convinced that he’s a big walking incubator, as a result of government experiments. With nothing better to do in life, Judd soon goes happily along.

This may be an obscure reference, but one of my occasional guilty pleasures is a 60’s Japanese movie called Blind Beast, in which a blind sculptor kidnaps a fashion model and imprisons her in a remote warehouse decked out with giant moldings of female body parts; things evolve in a weirdly sado-masochistic direction and by the end you just watch with your mouth wide open. The bare bones of Bug have a fair bit in common with Blind Beast, but it’s nowhere near as aesthetically interesting, since Friedkin opts merely for a grungy realism. This works well when the characters are accessing the apparently endless American mythology of conspiracies and allegedly misunderstood folk-heroes – everyone from Jim Jones to Timothy McVeigh gets a name-check here, and it’s just about possible on the basis of what’s shown that Shannon isn’t completely delusional. Ultimately though, it’s a pyrotechnic festival of derangement. Judd gives herself to all this as though sensing Oscar chances.

You can probably tell that I’m one of the few people who places Bug ahead of Once, although it’s not something I’d spend a lot of time arguing. But 28 Weeks Later wins the week. I’ve forgotten the context, but I remember David Thomson disparaging Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre as a meal in which the participants don’t even eat their food, let alone each other. So let’s go with that valuation scale: in Once they gaze across the table; in Bug they gnaw at each other; in 28 Weeks Later they feast!

Redford exposed

There was a time in the 70’s when Robert Redford was just about the most golden star alive, floating in that magical zone where the movies are regarded as intelligent and classy while also being huge hits; perhaps since then only Tom Hanks, in the second half of the 90’s, has experienced a comparable run. The films included The Sting, The Way We Were, All the President’s Men, the latter adding to his impeccable progressive liberal credentials. Although too level-headed to be a great screen lover, he acted with most of the leading ladies of the day: Fonda, Streisand, Dunaway, Streep. In 1980 he directed his first film, Ordinary People, and won an Oscar for it, an achievement subsequently somewhat tarnished in the history books by the fact that it beat Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

Robert Redford

It would have seemed unlikely at the time, but that was probably the moment of his greatest stature in Hollywood. He didn’t work for another four years, and very sparingly from then on, and his projects usually seemed weighed down by calculations of prestige and significance; the other pictures he’s directed have often been unaccountably dull. He founded the Sundance film festival, which has certainly become an institution, but by now there’s a notion of an archetypal “Sundance movie” which provokes only passing excitement at best. By the standards of some of his contemporaries, Redford came to seem one part lightweight to one part drop-out, content to stay on the margins of his art, plainly well aware of its limitations. When I think of him, if I focus on the one part drop-out, I tend to think of the loss of American promise, of a time when modern-day genre cinema embodied a company’s capacity for building on the past without evading its future.

Redford has never won an acting Oscar, and was only even nominated once, for The Sting; by now it seemed unlikely in the extreme that he’d ever add to that. But his new film All is Lost makes him one of the favourites for this year; The New Yorker said something to the effect that he does more acting in this film than in all his previous ones combined. You could almost turn that round though, to say that Redford’s effectiveness in the film lies in finally mastering the art of presence, to the exclusion of visible acting. Years ago in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman recounted how Redford almost ruined The Verdict, in which he was originally cast, by trying to turn the character into a white knight; the producers eventually pushed him out and went with Paul Newman, who embraced the flaws and weaknesses with complete lack of vanity. All is Lost might almost constitute an act of penance for such past excesses. Among much else, you realize how little you actually saw Redford in his heyday, how classic lighting and framing softened our sense of him, both internally and externally. The new film, both literally and figuratively, strips away his hiding places.

All is Lost

Redford (identified in the closing credits only as “Our Man”) is a man in a yacht, by himself in the Indian Ocean. After a brief opening voice over (which, although you’d hardly guess at the time, constitutes by far the most we’ll ever hear him say), we go back eight days; he’s shaken awake as the yacht hits a shipping container, presumably dislodged from a vast ship (perhaps, it’s tempting to think, as a result of another, more expansive movie playing elsewhere, a version of the recent Captain Phillips); there’s a hole in the side and water is flooding in. From there the film charts what he does to survive: fixing the damage as best he can, coping with storms, his resources and options gradually becoming depleted and stripped down.

Even more than while watching Captain Phillips, All is Lost shows up the trite characterizations that marred Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. We can intuit from his circumstances that Our Man is fairly wealthy, and the opening monologue seems to hint at various regrets, but there are no flashbacks to happier times, no fantasy conversations with family members, not even a photograph on display in his living quarters (which otherwise seem as well equipped as any modern condo). The title carries a hint of longing, that perhaps this calamity is the natural extension of whatever unresolved desires would cause a man at this stage of life to be out here alone in the first place, that all must be lost so that something can be found; there are passing moments when he seems exhilarated by the challenges.

But Chandor impressively avoids making his film too existentially schematic, or overloading it with symbolic significance. Much of the film’s interest is in the simple mechanics of how things work; if you don’t know anything about modern rich man yachts, it’s quite informative. But it isn’t a procedural either; sometimes we follow his actions from A to B to C; sometimes we jump to G. In the physical and temporal as in the personal, the film suggests a pattern we don’t fully grasp. It has some beautiful compositions, but doesn’t surrender to them (Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is another work that comes off badly by comparison, not that it ever came off well). The film’s least convincing aspect is its ending, but it doesn’t matter too much; as you absorb the journey, it’s always evident that the destination, whatever it may be, will be somewhat arbitrary.

Margin Call

This is only Chandor’s second film. His first, Margin Call, examined an imperiled vessel of a different kind: a New York finance house pulling every lever to avoid financial calamity. It got a lot of praise, but struck me as an implausible contrivance, focusing its attention on the wrong things (it shows nothing of the outside world, except at the very end) while straining for broader resonance. All at Lost feels as if Chandor perhaps wanted to correct something in that work, by stripping down further, to a situation so spare and austere that any misstep would be magnified. Such one man shows aren’t that unusual – in recent years we’ve had movies about someone who can’t leave a phone booth, someone trapped inside a coffin – but they’ve seldom seemed like more than stunts. That term never seems remotely applicable here, because you feel the director putting himself on the line in a way the previous filmmakers never did.

If that’s impressive enough, it’s remarkable that Chandor got someone like Redford to take comparable risks and accept such exposure, to be so thrown around and battered. I don’t know if that’s what we always wanted from him, but the credit has it right – if at the height of his fame he was never quite Our Man, it feels like he is now.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Fall movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2005)

First actually, some late summer movies I didn’t already write about. Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm was indeed an oddly grim enterprise, cluttered looking and claustrophobic, carrying a rather fussy and obsessive air. This turned off many critics, but I rather liked the sense of Gilliam’s tetchiness and skepticism interacting with potentially merely fanciful material. John Singleton’s Four Brothers is a mixture of gritty blue-collar local colour crossed with ingratiating violent excess. After this and Shaft, Singleton’s status as a black pioneer (the first to win an Oscar nomination for directing, for Boyz ‘N the Hood) seems well and truly dissipated, although the film is undoubtedly entertaining in its swaggering way. The Constant Gardener, one of the year’s most highly praised films, had dazzling technique, but seemed to me awfully reliant on contrivance, and its sensual pleasures probably served to blunt its political impact. And I finally saw The Wedding Crashers toward the end of its run. It starts off great, with a near-inspired sex-and-revelry montage, but becomes increasingly plodding, ending up barely sentient.

I also went back to see Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, the only film this year that I thought demanded an almost immediate second visit. I wrote a few months ago that it “rapidly exhausts your powers of absorption on first viewing.” The revisit rendered the film’s structural intricacies considerably less daunting, allowing its human delicacy, particularly as enacted by the several fine leading actresses, to come to the fore.

Lord of War is a fascinating chronicle of a big-time arts dealer – one of those Hollywood movies that thrills you with its overall prowess, and its ability to grapple so confidently with complex subject matter, even as you regret its conventionality in a host of ways; it certainly doesn’t soften the edges of Nicolas Cage’s amoral protagonist as much as you might have feared. Pretty Persuasion, about nasty goings-on in a California high school, has all kinds of appealingly sleazy ideas, but persistently weak execution. Given its shameless adherence to formula, Lasse Hallstrom’s An Unfinished Life entertained me much more than should have been possible. I generally find Hallstrom’s films dreary and shallow, but Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman, making even the lamest line sound like mulled wine, held me captive. Flightplan looked from the trailer like a hi-tech, super-mystifying version of Hitchcock’s Lady Vanishes, but didn’t turn out that way; it engaged in some conventional if generally effective yarn-spinning before taking off into overkill, with only Jodie Foster’s anxious centre to keep it visible from the earth.

Some more film festival movies I caught up with later.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s Canada’s nominee for this year’s foreign film Oscar, and hopes are building up that it can replicate The Barbarian Invasions’ recent success there. It certainly has a shot, but given what we know of the Oscars, is this necessarily a sign of highest-level achievement? Vallee’s film, the chronicle of a boy growing up from the early 60’s to the mid-80’s, is packed with colour and incident; it’s imaginative and well sustained, with a great sense of time and place, and an admirable taste for sexual ambiguity. But the strenuousness evident in the title (which consists of the initials of the boy and his five brothers) also winds through the film, most egregiously in a dubious Jesus parallel (the boy is born on Christmas day, seems to have healing powers, etc.) but also in the somewhat neurotic pacing. Still, it’s certainly a superior example of the wacky family nostalgia genre.

Shane Black was the hot scriptwriter of Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodbye; apparently tired of such hackwork, he disappeared for a long while and is now back as the writer-director of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which melds his tired old action territory with something more quirky and (in a cozy Hollywood kind of way) experimental. Robert Downey Jr (highly resourceful and magnetic as always) is a petty criminal who comes to Hollywood for a screen test and gets drawn into a complex murder plot. The dialogue is flashy and glib (for instance, the characters frequently correct one another’s grammar) and Downey’s voice over continuously acknowledges the artifice of what we’re watching – a device that’s pleasantly diverting and occasionally even stimulating at times, but only emphasizes the dispensability of the core plot. It all has a distinct air of smart-ass-ism, and I doubt that Black is headed anywhere that Tarantino hasn’t been already, but that’s still more satisfying than where he used to be.

Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale is a marked contrast with his earlier, conventionally quirky movies, and comes as a surprise after his humdrum writing work with Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic) and his thin humour pieces for The New Yorker. This seems to reflect the new film’s autobiographical roots – the set-up of two New York writers whose marriage is breaking up, and the two boys caught in the middle, apparently parallels Baumbach’s own teenage experience. The film has lots of funny lines, but also sustains a uniquely dour, rather squirmy quality, shot through with denial and displacement and self-loathing – the ending provides only the most minimal degree of closure. It’s a most distinctive and subtly weighty work, but with the feeling of a one-off, although I hope I’m wrong. 

Shopgirl is the adaptation of Steve Martin’s novella, written by and starring Martin and directed by Anand Tucker. Claire Danes plays the Saks Fifth Avenue worker caught between Martin’s computer millionaire and a grungy unsophisticate played by Jason Schwartzmann; she’s the best she’s ever been, and is virtually solely responsible for whatever nuance the film seems to have. Otherwise it’s wistful to the point of invisibility, carrying an unmerited notion of itself as a universal fable. Martin’s humour is largely absent, to be replaced by, well, nothing really.

Capote recreates Truman Capote’s writing of In Cold Blood, his famous “non-fiction novel” about a brutal Kansas murder in 1960; the writing stretched over years, and the end result transformed the writer’s reputation, but left him so drained that he never completed another full-length work. Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as Capote, and the film is extremely subtle in depicting both his initial confident manipulation of his own image, and the degree to which this biter is ultimately bitten by the weight of the project and of his own complicity in the fate of the two accused men. I admired the film a lot, but I must admit to not finding it particularly engrossing at times – its economy and restraint engender a slight feeling of monotony, and I’m not sure that someone who lacked a basic preexisting sense of Capote would know at all what to make of it.

Much more next time


Alec and Jim's excellent adventure

I would never have guessed I’d spend so much time listening to Alec Baldwin. The decline in his film career didn’t seem like a great reason for regret at the time, and there was ample apparent reason to dismiss him as an undisciplined boor. Actually, you still sometimes wonder about that, but Baldwin has at the very least demonstrated engaging relish at the possibilities available to him, and a skill at cracking them open. He’s introduced movies on TCM and radio broadcasts from the New York Philharmonic, been politically active, and launched a very enjoyable podcast, where the menu might be Rosie O’Donnell one week, an expert on the New York prison system the next (I listened to every single episode). He’s now taken that format to MSNBC, more or less unaltered except for the pictures. Also in the last year, he acted on Broadway in Orphans (where the behind the scenes conflicts helped to maintain the darker side of the persona) and in one of the year’s most highly regarded films, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. And then there’s 30 Rock, seemingly endless appearances on Letterman and SNL, oh, and a new baby daughter.

Seduced and Abandoned

All of this constitutes an obvious danger though – when there’s so much Alec Baldwin around, how much would you pay for the chance to see him again? He good naturedly puts this question at the centre of the new HBO documentary Seduced and Abandoned, directed by James Toback (whose last project was Tyson). Toback and Baldwin evolve a proposal for a sexually charged drama set against the Iraq war, which they provisionally call Last Tango in Tikrit, with Baldwin and Neve Campbell lined up as stars; they then take off to the 2012 Cannes festival in search of the required $15 to $18 million budget. It rapidly becomes clear that the money guys don’t see the appeal of the project: two of them say exactly the same thing, that they could maybe be talked into $4 to $5 million at the most. Others propose changes of location for the sake of tapping other pots of money, or changing various aspects of the package, such as Baldwin (now perceived as a TV actor) or Campbell (yesterday’s news) or both. Along the way, the pair hangs out with a grand selection of classic directors, a varied bunch of actors, and some seriously rich people who could finance such a movie as a rounding error in their accounts (but of course, would rather not).

It’s a very entertaining creation, merging lots of good interactions and storytelling with immaculately chosen reference points from old movies; Toback and Baldwin make a highly appealing double act. The title alerts you to the underlying direction of the adventure, that cinema almost never lives up to its promise. At the outset, it quotes Orson Welles about spending 95% of his time running round in search of money, and 5% actually making films (which, thinking over Welles’ career, might actually understate the former number); and then once you get past that, there’s a pervasive sense that the 5% isn’t as scintillating as it used to be, that contemporary technologies and sensibilities have all but sucked the artistic soul out of it.

Last Tango in Paris/Tikrit

Looked at one way, it’s rather surprising how easily Seduced and Abandoned goes down. Toback certainly sublimates his creative personality here – there’s not much sign of the one-of-a-kind nerviness that powers such films as Fingers and Exposed (and even less of Toback’s own personal legend, encompassing just about every kind of addiction and compulsive behaviour known to science). But maybe this is exactly the point – that there’s almost no remaining room for that kind of character. This isn’t all about loss of nerve and vision by decision-makers. When he appeared on Baldwin’s podcast, Toback told a remarkable story about how, in the early 80’s, he persuaded a studio boss to put up the company money for Exposed only by personally paying him $2 million under the table; probably not the kind of governance that characterizes a sustainable business model. And Toback and Baldwin aren’t giving their prospective investors much to go on. Last Tango in Tikrit is barely more than a concept, apparently in no way nailed down as to form or style or content: of course, this works well as an engine for their adventures through Cannes, but it’s reasonable to ask: why would anyone realistically say yes to them?

The film avoids then becoming a mere screed at the avaricious ways of the financiers, spending just as much time charting a broader shift in film culture. The four directors interviewed – Bertolucci (whose Last Tango in Paris provides a particularly apt reference point for the film’s themes of cinematic bliss and pain), Coppola, Scorsese and Polanski – are all exemplars of accessible art cinema, their bodies of work overflowing with astonishing, indelible feats of composition, acting and revelation. Ryan Gosling (somewhat surprisingly) best sums up the difference when he describes much filmmaking now as a lifeless process of starting with a wide shot and moving mechanically in for the close-ups, progressively sapping whatever creative energy might have existed at the outset. Baldwin contrasts the confidence of Allen, happily letting actors change his scripts as they see fit, with directors of much less accomplishment who insist on sticking exactly to what’s on the page. The underlying dilution in character and confidence seems plain, reflecting the greater significance of big-budget films as corporate investments of strictly calculated risk. It’s worth noting though that this devolution isn’t just a story of cinema – you could chart much the same thing in politics, business, and perhaps most other areas of human accomplishment.

Resemblance to Death

 But of course, for whatever reason, the ins and outs of cinema seem to receive disproportionate attention. And the film ultimately works its way to a metaphysical meditation on this attraction, citing Norman Mailer’s claim that “Film is a phenomenon whose resemblance to death has been ignored for too long.” This leads to a series of reflections on one’s readiness to die, and to an ending that puts a facet of Mailer’s observation into action. More broadly though, Seduced and Abandoned lacks the sense of confrontation and full-blooded on-the-edge commitment that the writer seems to have had in mind, making the citation seem a bit opportunistic. Actually, the whole project has a similar catch-as-catch-can quality about it – presumably the only reason the interviewees include Diane Kruger, for instance, is that she was available.

But on this occasion, the somewhat ramshackle quality works. If you can’t make Last Tango in Tikrit, you can have more fun pretending to make it than in doing most other things in life, in conducting life itself as a creative act. In the end, despite the failure of the immediate goal, the seduction counts for more than the abandonment; you could easily imagine the two of them heading off on another adventure, whether it be to charm Rosie O’Donnell together, or to reform the New York prison system.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

March movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2008)

Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side won this year’s Oscar for best documentary. The taxi belonged to a young Afghan man, picked up in 2002 and taken to be questioned at Bagram prison; six days later he was dead. The “dark side” alludes to a Dick Cheney quote, a few days after 9/11, foreseeing how the pursuit of evil would require loosening the moral gloves. As we now know, this brought us the war in Iraq (superbly dissected in another Oscar nominee, No End in Sight), Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, torture in all but name, and a profound erosion in America’s moral status. The Bush administration, like a mantra, cites six and a half years without a terrorist attack as the justification for all things – one of the most corrupt and careless cause-and-effect analyses imaginable.

Taxi to the Dark Side

Gibney’s film sets out the atrocities in meticulous, almost painful detail, drawing on interviews with former detainees, soldiers, and numerous informed observers, and a wealth of photographic and documentary evidence. It shows the wretched ripple effects of Bush/Cheney contempt for the Geneva Convention, arrogant disregard for the supposed enemy, and sloppy definition of meaningful “intelligence.” Gibney’s focus is deliberately and rigorously narrow – he doesn’t critique the war as such, and avoids tangents (although some, such as the glimpse of 24’s dunder-headed glorifying of terrorism, must have been tempting to pursue further). Obviously, I’m in a group that’s pre-disposed to lap up such an expose, and I suppose Gibney could have done a little more to provide “balance” – assuming there’s anyone alive who can argue the other side of this stuff in more than sloganeering terms. But as I’ve said before, given recent and ongoing US atrocities, balance is no virtue.

Definitely Maybe  - a Valentine’s Day release actually, but I got to it late – struck many critics as a cut above the usual romantic comedy, and I think that’s right, although I don’t know how big a gap “a cut” would be – a few more smiles, a few less cringes. Ryan Reynolds (pleasantly bland) is Abigail Breslin’s father, and tells her the story of how he met her mother, although with names changed to prolong the suspense; she (and we) follow him through almost two hours of entanglements, with three women taking turns at being the one, then not, then the one again. Once you get past the contrived set-up, it rolls along smoothly. Reynolds starts off as a volunteer for the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign, and this backdrop meshes quite well with the theme of youthful idealism yielding to realism/disappointment. It never seems like much more than a gimmick though.

In many ways my favourite sequence was the opening credit sequence, where Reynolds plugs in his earphones and strolls through a world of soundlessly flapping lips and unperceived annoyances and threats – right away we sense both the allure of progress and its under acknowledged dehumanization. But this isn’t a movie of big ideas. And watching the 1936 Libeled Lady a few days later underlined Definitely Maybe’s lack of energy and snap and sheer engagement. The characters all treat each other so tentatively, almost sexlessly.
Funny Games

Michael Haneke has remade his 1997 film Funny Games, in English instead of German, but otherwise with almost Xerox-quality precision, and no one can quite figure out why. The original was deliberately unpleasant to watch, with its story of a well-to-do family terrorized by two chilling fiends; coming at the peak of Tarantino mania it could at least half-plausibly claim to be commenting on the genre rather than creatively glorifying in it (although it did at least enough of the latter to sow some plausible ambiguity). Haneke has made some great films in the last ten years, and he’s a fascinating if rather forbidding figure. He’s also as articulate as hell, and with Funny Games he’s created almost the ultimate Dean Martin to his intellectual Jerry Lewis, an artistic straw man he can bounce pronouncements off forever. And now he’s produced a remake, extending the Rorschachian potential almost ad infinitum. I don’t think people are biting quite as much this time, and they shouldn’t – the film is pristinely made, like all his work, but it’s not worthy of a great filmmaker. It is conceptually interesting…up to a point. I could certainly get a full column out of it. But given that we’re defined by the choices we make, I won’t try.

The Bank Job, directed by Roger Donaldson, isn’t as conceptually interesting, and I’d find it hard to say much at all about it without resorting to blatant padding. But it’s always good viewing. Based on the true story of a somewhat mysterious early 70’s London robbery, it posits that a shadowy government branch set up the heist – using real small-time criminals unaware of their strings being pulled - to retrieve some compromising photos of the Queen’s sister from a Malcolm X-like villain’s safe deposit box. Also in the mix – dirty cops, a porn king, and various other powerful figures with something to hide. It gets convoluted, and I’m not sure by what sleight of hand it justifies its ending; Donaldson’s tight handling provides good momentum, but limits the wider resonance. A good cast (if not quite as good as the endlessly flavourful ensembles that seemed to come together so easily in 60’s British cinema) brings a lot to the table. 

Paranoid Park

Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park is a rather beautiful enigma, another in his series of intimate, formally challenging examinations of urban youth. The central figure here is a Portland teenager who accidentally causes the death of a railway security guard; the possibility of being caught becomes the weightiest plank in his unfocused, wandering sensibility. That sounds like usual alienated teen stuff, but Van Sant is extremely successful here at avoiding cliché and confounding any easy reading. Paranoid Park is the city’s main skateboard park - a scary destination that however allows the possibility of sheer abstraction. The film could be seen as a series of poses, but I think it would repay multiple viewings; the thematic, psychological and aesthetic choices are continually fascinating.  

David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels is an engrossing film too, but I take the message to be merely this: if you’re stuck in nothingville USA and you’re older than say twenty-five, it’s basically all over. It follows that among the film’s multiple plots, the most refreshing is the teenage romance, even if it’s another case of a quirky attractive woman making it way easier for the shy male protagonist than I or any of my contemporaries can ever remember being the case.

Continuing his downward trajectory since his excellent debut George Washington, Green juggles his small-town plot threads with some good observation, but allows too much actorly excess, and too much lurid plot development. Like some of the other movies mentioned above, it feels rather like a make-work project. Try to choose something necessary.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Trouble at sea

I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who spent part of Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips thinking back to Airport ’77. That’s the one where the plane ends up underwater after a bungled hijacking, and the US Navy has to pull it up before the air runs out; put another way, it’s a first half of low-energy melodrama, and a second half of majestic hardware, and director Jerry Jameson seems much more engaged during the second half. Comparing Captain Phillips to such an old-timer concoction might seem like comparing an iPhone app to a kindergarten art project, but if the technology has changed, the barely-examined certainty of American supremacy hasn’t.

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips does allow some cracks in that armour. In an early scene, Phillips has a conversation with his wife about how things used to be easier, and I imagine any NRA viewer of the film would see it as a prime negative argument for freer gun-toting: if Phillips and his crew had been better armed in the first place, he or she might say, then they’d never have been such relatively easy prey for four Somali hijackers in a flimsy boat, but with four awesome machine guns. But this only serves to emphasize American goodwill – for all its power and capacity, it’s a benevolent force, until that benevolence is abused. After that, the abusers can’t hope to run or hide.

The film is based on a real event (and so of course has attracted all the usual tedious complaints about factual inaccuracies), occurring in 2009. It’s an awesome creation; it’s been a long time since I spent so much of a film on the figurative edge of my seat. Greengrass is a master orchestrator of modern cinema – seemingly subject to no physical or technical constraints; as facile with the big stuff as a Ridley Scott, and as attuned to human intimacy as the documentarian he used to be. The film shows up some of the weaknesses I wrote about the other week in Gravity, reminding you how everything in cinema is a choice. Like Gravity’s Alfonso Cuaron, Greengrass could have decorated his film with wise-cracking quasi-superheroes, fantasy conversations, and agonized back stories about past traumas, but he sticks to an appealingly no-crap approach.

Tom Hanks

His lead actor Tom Hanks is perfectly with the program, recovering immaculately from the rare misstep of Cloud Atlas. I admit I don’t tend to think of Hanks as one of the very greatest American actors, but then you look at a film like this and ask, well, who could have done any better? You might argue that Phillips’ character barely emerges, that the part increasingly becomes an exercise in pure suffering, but that seems to be the point, that such an extreme situation contorts even a capable professional into a twisted version of himself. Hanks’ virtuosic, moving final scene allows us to feel the full force of what’s the man been enduring, and again confirms Greengrass’ odd delicacy.

Back though to that overriding caveat. The film does spend a little time on the backstory of the Somalis – sketching the sense of an impoverished, warlord-ruled hellhole which may allow some young men just two effective options: piracy or death. But this counts for little in the overall fabric of the film. After Phillips leaves his home, he turns up in the port of Oman to take command, and the film provides awesome, Burtunsky-like shots of what seems like miles of storage containers and the attendant infrastructure. It’s a stunning encapsulation of the mechanics of globalization, distilled further in the shots of the ship – a crew of just twenty people to safeguard a rich concentration of commerce (and, we’re told, some food aid). When the crew first learns of the pirate threat, they react to it (in one of the film’s blackly wittier touches) as a violation of union rules. In conjunction with that opening exchange between Phillips and his wife, there’s something plainly out of whack in the negotiation of man and machine society.

Ultimately though, the film happily surrenders to one of the most pernicious symptoms of this imbalance. The aftermath of 9/11 made deliriously clear our demented official calculus of human value – it’s worth spending any amount of resources to fight the theoretical threat of lives being extinguished by terrorism or other high-profile intrusion, but not worth investing a fraction of that in addressing the real issues that limit and destroy people every day: poverty, hunger, lack of mobility and opportunity. Once Phillips becomes a hostage, in danger of being transported to the Somali mainland, he enters that privileged zone where no amount of money and resources is too great to ensure his safe return. No doubt in part it’s a reflection of political calculations outweighing the individual notional value of the individual at its centre. But the end result is always the same. The more time and money gets diverted into such escapades, the less there is for the grimmer stuff of life; daily interaction gets more threadbare and desperate, increasing the collective capitulation to vested interests, including the great wheels of international commerce, and so increasing the likelihood of desperate people resorting to desperate actions, which just keeps the whole thing going.

Paul Greengrass

Looking at it that way, Hanks’ highly empathy-inducing final scene also soothes the way to settle in as suckers: when we see the humanity of this man so closely and fully, how can we doubt that all of this was justified, and will be justified again for future excellent military adventures? The implied alternative, that Phillips might have been sacrificed out of necessity, might seem horribly callous. But America tolerates millions of its people stuck in versions of living deaths every day. At the very least, I’d suggest, the film settles too easily for the attractions of the small story that lie within the bigger one.

It’s not the first time Greengrass’ work has prompted this kind of reaction. In 2006 he made United 93, a depiction of what may have happened on one of the 9/11 planes. At the time he called it a kind of Rorschach test, an inkblot, that you hold up and people project their hopes and fears and fantasies onto…(confirming) the reality of hard choices, the extraordinary human courage to face hard choices and how difficult hard choices are when there are no good outcomes.” But even that choice of words, and the very choice of material, confirmed the film as a tribute to American exceptionalism. Captain Phillips, similarly, avoids the dumb moves you’d see from lesser filmmakers, and might even seem moderately brave in that respect, but still, the big picture poses little challenge to the status quo.