Sunday, December 8, 2013

Fall movies #2

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2006)

Some more movies from recent months.

Philip Noyce’s Catch a Fire follows a young South African who’s wrongly accused in the early 80’s of a terrorist act at the oil refinery where he works; he and his wife are tortured, and although he’s eventually let go, he becomes radicalized and joins the ANC. This is yet another Western film about Africa that can’t transcend glossiness; there’s little sense of the townships, of the brutality of apartheid, of poverty and deprivation. As usual, way too much time is given to a focal white character, a cop played by Tim Robbins who does his job while struggling with his conscience. The film becomes increasingly choppy and incoherent, although of course South Africa’s ultimate liberation is stirring no matter how often you see it depicted. It’s a true story (actor Derek Luke, who’s too actorly from beginning to end, joins the real man on screen in the end) but as presented here seems merely like a heavy-handed contrivance.

Deliver us from Evil

Amy Berg’s Deliver us from Evil could be a companion piece to Kirby Dick’s 2004 Twist of Faith – two documentaries about sex abuse by Catholic priests, focusing on the victims’ testimony, the perpetrators’ sly self-righteousness, and the church machine’s immense cover-up. Both films leave no doubt about the church’s failure and effective complicity in the abuse, and if Berg’s film has the upper hand, it’s only because of a somewhat more skilful approach overall and, in particular, because of her startling access to Father Oliver O’Grady, who raped and molested children for decades, spent seven years in jail, and now lives in Ireland. O’Grady is as glib as any politician you’ll ever see, acknowledging just enough wrongdoing to seem sincere, while never grappling with the scale of what he did (his youngest victim was nine months old). I suppose the film might seem one-sided to the extent that it simply seems to leave nothing for us to salvage from Catholicism – based on dogma appearing nowhere in the Bible, run on Mafia-like principles, placing appearance and continuity ahead of the rights of children, and so forth – but I cannot myself think at this moment what the other side might be.

Flags of our Fathers

Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers is another fine film from the astonishing veteran. It focuses on the famous photograph of American soldiers raising the flag over Iwo Jima, which became an instant icon when it appeared in 1944. The surviving soldiers were scooped up into a massive war bond drive, acclaimed as heroes even though they knew they’d done no more (and in some cases much less) than their dead comrades, and they met with mixed fortunes later in life. Eastwood’s canvas here is remarkably intricate: the film’s two spines are the recreation of Iwo Jima and the bond drive’s razzle dazzle, but it expands to include families of fallen soldiers and recollections in the present day, all presented with a fluidity that makes you wonder if Eastwood wants to become Alain Resnais.

Other aspects of the film are more stately. The focus on the need for heroes, and the institutional carelessness with the details of how they’re created, is rather conventional (and I couldn’t help wishing that the possible contemporary parallels were drawn out a little more fully), and the film is quietly respectful toward American heartland values. For all the loss and grief on display, it often feels a little distant – the individual characters are less vivid than the military and political machinery that sweeps them along, and while that’s not at all inappropriate to the theme, Eastwood doesn’t take the approach to a point that might be truly challenging. Most viewers seem to respect the film more than they respond emotionally to it, and I tend to feel the same way, but at the same time it’s almost ceaselessly admirable.

Running with Scissors, directed by Ryan Murphy, is based on a memoir by Augusten Burroughs, who has apparently pronounced himself highly satisfied with the filmed results. I must admit I find it hard to imagine any (good) book of which this could possibly be the ideal movie, for it’s a fairly chaotic, distinctly unpersuasive experience. The Burroughs character sees his parents split up in his early teens, and then bounces back and forth between his emotionally fraught mother, who fancies herself a poet (well-played by Annette Bening, but nevertheless a creation you just get tired of experiencing), and her incompetent but manipulative doctor (Brian Cox), who brings in tow an entire family of oddballs (including Jill Clayburgh and Gwyneth Paltrow). The film seems most at ease when merely teasing us with the lightly grotesque, at which times it feels like a coarser version of something like The Royal Tenenbaums, but the emotional content is mostly fumbled, so that by the end the supposed highs and lows are barely distinguishable. The main message seems to be merely about the necessity of boundaries and structure, but given the uncertain tone and rambling approach the point hardly carries much conviction; it seems to me that Bening’s character is ultimately treated with rather offhand cruelty, whereas Cox’s is over-indulged. Whatever modest pleasures the film has to offer are basically exhausted halfway through.

One of the Best

Todd Field’s Little Children is an infinitely stronger film. I was lukewarm about Field’s much admired debut, In the Bedroom, finding it a bit forced, particularly in the final detour into vigilantism. Early in Little Children, I wondered if I might have a similar reaction, and I do think it’s a little too precious at times, but any reservations are far outweighed by the dazzling overall skill and intelligence. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson play suburban stay at home caregivers, both in rather arid marriages, who connect at the swimming pool and start an affair. Meanwhile, the community obsesses about the presence of a freed sex offender, back at home with his frail but strong-willed mother. The film is quiet, immensely nuanced, with a prevailing tone of bewildered trauma; sometimes it’s satiric, sometimes outright scary, including many magnificent individual scenes and a wealth of surprising detail, all filtered through a perfect cast. Overall it conveys a pervasive uncertainty about what men and women can possibly do for each other – everyone is gripped by the “hunger for an alternative” that the Winslet character cites in her book club discussion of Madame Bovary, but any momentum is displaced into fear or regression (although the voice over strikes a moderately optimistic final note). It’s most daring in suggesting the spectrum that links the child molester to the merely unsettled male, creating huge ambiguity about real motivations and virtues. This is certainly one of the year’s best American films.

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