Sunday, January 26, 2014

Summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2007)

I should really write about the late Bergman and Antonioni, but it’s a hopeless task. It’s trite to say that The Passenger or The Passion of Anna are worth ten (a hundred?) times the films dealt with here, but that’s the magnitude of what we’ve lost. Perhaps worst of all is that despite their great ages, they’d both made films recently enough to allow the faint hope that it might not be entirely over. Still, we must push on, and this is what we have. 


The film version of the Broadway musical Hairspray, directed by Adam Shankman, understands pretty well that the supreme wonder of the movie musical genre is its capacity for sustained happiness. I can’t remember the last film in which, for all the superficial villainies and travails, almost everyone seemed so consistently full of peppiness and delight. The well-known material revolves around Tracy Turnblad, a rotund dance-crazy chick in early 60’s Baltimore who leads the way to integration of the local favourite Corny Collins Show.  The equality theme is utterly frothy here – it’s no doubt valueless as a primer on the real integration struggles - but even so the film’s wide-eyed conviction is completely winning. Shankman doesn’t do much of interest on a stylistic level, but he presents the music and dancing mostly cleanly and brightly – an approach much more appealing than the weary calculations of something like Dreamgirls.

The material’s famous quirk, going back to John Waters’ 1988 original, is that Tracy’s mother Edna is played by a man in drag – Divine, the first time round. This version has John Travolta, whose performance is sincere and oddly low-key, but the truth is there’s nothing about the film’s non-subversive sensibility that makes sense of the casting gimmick. It’s more fun watching everyone else, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken and an outstanding collection of younger actors. All in all, I was almost as cheerful as I was watching Ratatouille the previous week, although in a more limited way.

Danny Boyle’s Sunshine is a tech-heavy science fiction drama, eschewing space opera type stuff in favour of a 2001/Solaris approach – a deliberate pace, mature characterizations, attention to plausibility, immersion in the technology, and a dose of mysticism. The movie is gritty and restrained, but always seems like the work of a true romantic, in thrall to the glory of the sun and the emptiness.

Some time in the future, the sun is dying, and a group of eight voyagers is sent on a mission to try reigniting it, by setting off a vast payload of explosives. A miscalculation by one of them sets off a chain of misfortunes, leading to the inevitable drip-by-drip demise of the crew. The movie has enough self-confidence to have one of them mock the idea that they might ever encounter aliens, but missteps later on by conjuring up a development not so very different from that, losing its balance on the mumbo-jumbo seesaw. For all its virtues, it often seems tedious and over-familiar, and as in most of Boyle’s films, doesn’t really succeed in finding the thematic flesh to fill out the conceptual structure.  

Talk to Me

Kasi Lemmons’ Talk to Me is an often-rollicking entertainment about Ralph “Petey” Greene, a real-life DJ who became a Washington DC folk hero in the 60’s and 70’s. As the movie tells it, he might have evolved into another Richard Pryor, if not for a heavy streak of combined integrity and defiance. Don Cheadle is often mesmerizing as Greene, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is barely less commanding as the station manager who guided his career. The movie creates any number of engaging scenes, but never seems wholly convincing as biography or social history – it’s too full of situations that exist only in movies (too-sharp dialogue, too-pat manoeuvres, etc.) And it’s a bit too fragmented in how it charts Greene’s inevitable decline over the later stretches.

Steve Buscemi’s Interview is a strange follow-up to his last film as director, Lonesome Jim: from a quirkily sincere commitment to blue-collar concerns, to the flighty mind games of the rich and influential. Buscemi also stars in it, as a fading political journalist assigned to interview a fashionable actress (Sienna Miller). The initial encounter is a disaster, but a freak accident gets him into her loft, and they enter a long evening of boozy flirting, fighting and mind games. The movie is fluidly done and well acted, and it’s certainly entertaining enough, but there’s no great poetry in the language, no great discovery hidden within the people, and the only interest is in waiting to see how the spoils of the game are divided. The answer seals an adequate return on the time invested (it’s only some 85 minutes long) but no more than that.

The bottom line is much the same for Patrice Leconte’s My Best Friend, which stars Daniel Auteuil as a gallery owner forced to acknowledge that among all his acquaintances and appointments he lacks a single true friend. Taking on a bet to come up with one, he latches on to a jovial taxi driver (Dany Boon), whose ebullience hides a different sort of loneliness. It’s a pleasant enough comedy, but has virtually no real laughs, and as moral tales go it’s a long way from Eric Rohmer, seeming strangely unambitious for the versatile (if seldom revelatory) Leconte. I couldn’t help thinking that any movie that sets its finale around a very specific (and long) recreation of the French Who Wants To Be A Millionaire can’t be too worried about passing the test of time.

The Bourne Ultimatum

It tells you a lot about the degraded state of the thriller genre that The Bourne Ultimatum seems relatively gritty and realistic. It’s extremely well made and gripping for sure – you suspect the Bond producers would love to entice director Paul Greengrass into their tent. Picking up where the last movie left off, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne strikes back at the CIA in search of his buried past; some in the agency want to reach out to him, others to wipe him out (along with anyone else in his orbit), and he dodges a series of assassins from London to Tangiers to New York, each location yielding terrifically designed and executed chase sequences. Assuming it’s even partly accurate in how it depicts the power of modern surveillance, it’s quite an eye opener, and of course it also draws comfortably on paranoia about Big Government.

Still, all of this depends on a huge amount of absurd coincidence, compression, wild luck and so forth, albeit flying by so quickly, with such a sense of authenticity, that you might not register it. Greengrass’ last film was United 93, which he described as a “Rorschach test” in which the audience might find any interpretation they cared to bring. I simply couldn’t see the point of such an approach – doesn’t 9/11, and more specifically the subsequent misuse of it, warrant interpreting by those who presume to depict it? – but it got him an Oscar nomination. Released from any obligation toward “balance” and “sensitivity,” The Bourne Ultimatum extends that approach even further – I don’t think it really means a damn thing, but it often sure feels like it does.

As opposed to the films of Bergman and Antonioni, where it really did mean something…

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