Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fall movies #4

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2006)

A Good Year stars Russell Crowe as a ruthless London bond trader who inherits the French chateau where he spent childhood summers with his beloved uncle, travels back there to sell it, and then slowly rediscovers his love for a simpler way of life; beautiful Marion Cotillard helps give his self-awareness a push. Brief clips of M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, and a yapping dog called Tati, suggest that director Ridley Scott (in a major change of pace from making movies with budgets bigger than most countries’ economies) has grand comic ambitions here, but his film could hardly fall further short of the great Tati. His fussy style crushes all potential laughs, and is ineffective both at showcasing the local scenery and at evoking its attendant spiritual benefits; add in the often annoying, prissy scripting, and a dull, unattractive Crowe performance, and you’re not left with much. Well, except for beautiful Marion Cotillard.

The Fountain

I think I probably liked Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain more than most critics did. Of course, the movie received terrible reviews, so that’s not saying very much at all. And on its own terms it’s undeniably monotonous, both visually and tonally. At some point though I started imagining what the screenplay might have looked like (because there must have been something there to attract Hugh Jackman), and that helped me focus on the underlying romantic intent and the intriguingly allusive structure. The film intertwines stories from three eras, all with Jackman: he’s a Spanish conquistador searching for a fabled “tree of life”; a modern-day doctor trying desperately to cure his wife’s cancer; and a futuristic space traveler who’s evolved to a higher state of being. There’s certainly something interesting there about human endurance and possibility and the persistence of love, but Aronofsky the director swamps it under a turgid pace and a visual approach that’s sometimes silly (the shots of the bald Jackman spinning through space in the lotus position, inside a little bubble, are particularly difficult to take seriously), often ugly (the yellow-grey colour scheme is distinctly uninspired). There’s barely a moment in the film that impacts or stimulates as you suspect it was meant to, and even if it had worked better, ultimately it would still have been just so much mumbo-jumbo. But you know, at least there’s something buried in there somewhere.

For your Consideration

For your Consideration is Christopher Guest’s latest creation, this time deploying his familiar stock company to (as Billy Wilder put it) strip away the phoney Hollywood tinsel to reveal the real tinsel underneath. The focus this time is a low budget film catapulted into the spotlight when Oscar buzz develops around some of its actors: the canvas stretches to include studio heads, TV entertainment shows, producers and agents. In truth the movie crams in so much that it can’t quite nail its main asset – the truly sad, needy actress played by Catherine O’Hara, who seems to be giving a real performance while most of those around her strike easy single notes. It all seems strangely lost in time – the fictional film in question is a hokey concoction the likes of which hasn’t been seen for years, and characters express amazement at such things as the Internet, cell phones, and printers. For every amusing non-sequitur (with Fred Willard once again providing the lion’s share of the laughs) there’s something else where the tone just seems off. Guest’s quizzical affection for all this can’t help but keep you occupied, and the film does have hints of ascending ambition, but it’s just too lightweight to evoke deep enthusiasm.

I’ve never been a particular James Bond fan, although growing up in Britain the films seemed as prominent as household furniture. I’m not sure, but I think the first thing I saw in a movie theatre without my parents may have been a double bill of The Spy who Loved Me and Moonraker (that’s right kids, they used to have double bills). Or maybe that came after The Concorde – Airport ’79, or as they called it in the UK in those days of staggered release schedules, Airport ’80 – the Concorde. Anyway, even at that young age, the image of stuffy Roger Moore and his stuntman saving the world without breaking a sweat was too fanciful for my own sensibility. More recently, I think The World is not Enough was as dull a viewing experience as I can remember. At least the last one, Die Another Day, had Halle Berry. But this only tells you that I’ve always been there to see them. Whatever one thinks of the series, it’s always been a cornerstone of the filmic cycle, each new release prompting the same retrospectives, comparisons and, mostly, lamentations that it’s not as good as it used to be (if it ever was).

Casino Royale

Well, here’s a surprise – the new Casino Royale is actually a good movie, and I don’t need to add the qualifier of being merely a good James Bond movie. Daniel Craig took some heat for being too short, too ugly, or whatnot, but he’s an actual actor, and his Bond is scarily intense, physical, and complex. These attributes seem to have infected everyone else involved, for Casino Royale is remarkably spare and focused. Not that it doesn’t provide the expected eye-popping action sequences – an early chase through a construction site, with Bond and his adversary leaping between cranes and platforms with a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon- style reckless grace, is ludicrous, but also heart-stopping, and rather beautiful. It’s also distinctly physical – you feel every crash and collision and aching joint. In fact, there’s surely never been a Bond movie where the protagonist is so notably scratched, bloodied, belittled, horribly tortured and brutalized.

So of all things, I occasionally found myself thinking of The Passion of the Christ, in that the committed sadism almost seems to be leaking someone’s underlying neurosis. Maybe it’s just expiation for so many decades of bad Bond movies. Either way, the film is unusually literate (perhaps partly due to Paul Haggis being one of the writers), grounded in plausible motivations, and anchored by underlying emotion. The lead actress is Eva Green, who is gorgeous, but not beyond the parameters of what normal life offers up, and her relationship with Bond is spiky and ultimately poignant. Throw in good use of location and intimations of intelligence in all respects, and it’s amazing how satisfying it all is – more satisfying in fact than The Departed or Flags of our Fathers. If this was the Bond movie I’d seen as a kid, who can say that my filmic evolution wouldn’t have gone in a totally different direction?


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