Wednesday, January 1, 2014

December movies #1

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2006)

I absolutely hated Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and had just about decided never to see any of his films again. But because I’m more easygoing than he seems to be, and since I had some time available, I went to see his new Apocalypto regardless. A strange choice of follow-up (although in common with Christ it completely avoids the English language, which may be a wise choice given its director’s facility with vocabulary), it depicts the Mayan kingdom as decline sets in. A relatively harmonious jungle tribe is devastated by the vicious rulers, and the surviving adults are taken away to be either sold into slavery or sacrificed to the gods; one young warrior escapes and sets off to return to his hidden pregnant wife and young son.

The film is nowhere near as annoying as Passion of the Christ, because even though it may be equally as violent by some statistical measure, it’s all a cartoonish, dispersed kind of brutality that generally seems too overdone and abstracted to leave much visceral impact. In fact, whatever Gibson’s intentions may have been, he doesn’t deliver much more than a familiar action movie rush. The film is quite conventionally paced, and although it seems meticulously researched and recreated (no question it’s visually stunning at times), it has limited evocative power. It has ample hints of supernatural or spiritual significance, but these never seem like more than dressing. For all its pace and obvious merits, I found my mind constantly drifting off.

Blood Diamond

The first comment I found on the Internet Movie Database reads: “There is clearly a cultural message going on, regarding violence, war, and man’s inhumanity to man.” Well, clearly, I guess. But if so, as in its predecessor, this message only emerges through a sense of self-flagellation and extremity. Thankfully though, Apocalypto seldom exhibits the smug piety of Christ, entailing that my main emotion as I came away from the film was simple relief.

Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond is a very similar viewing experience, in that the specific time and place count for far less than sheer momentum and Hollywood values. It’s a weaker and sillier film overall though, largely because of the often wretched English dialogue, which just makes Mel Gibson seem even shrewder. It’s 1999 in conflict-ridden Sierra Leone, and a diamond smuggler played by Leonardo DiCaprio links up with a simple fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) who’s trying to find his displaced family – the price of DiCaprio’s help is a huge buried diamond, of which only Hounsou knows the location.

The movie purports to have something to say about conflict diamonds, and how Western consumer complicity indirectly feeds African turmoil and suffering. However, this is all presented heavy-handedly, largely via a reporter played by Jennifer Connelly, who’s just terrible here. Through all of this, DiCaprio and Hounsou dodge a volume of bullets and explosions that might seem excessive even in a Rambo film (it’s established that the DiCaprio character is an amoral pragmatist – that is before the requisite softening sets in on him – but the number of people he blows away is still rather bewildering). The film’s other sins include outrageous coincidences, confusing geography, and little or no visceral feeling for Africa itself. DiCaprio brings an effective rough-edged conviction to it all, and keeps things feeling somewhat coherent just by sheer willpower, but by the end you have the sense of a movie disintegrating before your eyes.

The Puffy Chair

The Puffy Chair, a very low budget movie directed by Jay Duplass (with many other members of the Duplass clan strewn throughout the credits) has less technique in its entire length than you’ll find in any random minute of the above films. I’d love to declare The Puffy Chair a clear artistic winner, but on this occasion, affection for shoestring talk-driven comedies can only stretch so far. The film, about a young couple on a road trip to pick up and deliver a birthday gift (a puffy chair, in fact) to the guy’s father, has some nice set-ups and is never less than pleasant, but it’s very thin on real insight. See the recent Mutual Appreciation and Old Joy for better examples of how young directors can truly soar on a budget no bigger than a middle-ranking Bay Street salary.

How much bigger was the budget of The Pursuit of Happyness, in which Will Smith plays a single father trying by day to get through a demanding (unpaid) broker intern program, and by night to keep off the streets and hold it all together? Certainly bigger than anything previously available to director Gabriele Muccino, who made his reputation with the Italian hit The Last Kiss (recently and forgettably remade with a Paul Haggis script). Muccino uses the same smooth style here, but it worked better for broader canvases of middle-class dysfunction and longing than it does for this kind of focused, forward-moving narrative.

The movie is oddly bland, with neither its highs nor lows carrying much force, and Will Smith’s performance isn’t very interesting either. It’s based on a well-documented true story, but isn’t very convincing in this particular telling – for example, it’s simply not believable, as presented here, that Smith manages to outshine his competitors’ sales figures while working at least three fewer hours per day. I enjoyed the story well enough, but not as much as I would have if someone had simply told it to me over a drink.

The Holiday

Which would be a much longer drink than any devoted to telling the plot of The Holiday, a glossy, shallow contrivance about two young women, both in a relationship trough, who swap houses over the Internet for two weeks over Christmas – this brings trailer editor Cameron Diaz to newspaper marriage columnist Kate Winslet’s picture-book cottage in England, and Winslet to Diaz’ much swankier pad in Hollywood. Diaz meets Jude Law and Winslet meets Jack Black, which to me would suggest one closed deal and one petrified woman hurling herself back to Blighty, but I’m sure you can figure it out for yourselves.

The film is conceived of course as a seasonal “package,” and avoids anything that might strain or stress the viewer (with the exception of a two and a quarter hour running time), which makes for a lot of misty smiles, quiet tears, “quirky” exchanges, and conspicuous consumption in reassuringly lit situations. The only real suspense is in waiting to see how director Nancy Meyers comes up with an ending adequately balancing the women’s desires with their professional self-respect, which she does well enough (although by cheating a bit). The presence of Eli Wallach as a veteran screenwriter, and many references to the like of Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck, suggests that Meyers thinks she’s tapping into a venerable tradition here, which seems like a sign of a pretty puffy brain.

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