Monday, February 17, 2014

Fall movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2004)

While I was running off my film festival articles, it feels like a thousand movies came and went, and the one I heard about from most people was (of all things) What the Bleep do we Know. Based on a flashily off-putting trailer and mediocre reviews, I’d initially decided to give it a pass. But then people kept mentioning it to me - my friend Irene even saw it three times. So I went too.

What the Bleep...

The film is notionally about quantum physics but actually has about as much hard science as an old episode of Star Trek – it merely establishes a general notion of all things being connected, then extrapolates this into a rambling meditation on the power of positive thinking (suggested daily affirmation: “I’m taking this time to create my day and I’m affecting my quantum field.”) Interviews with scientists and commentators intertwine with lots of computer-generated gimmickry and a bizarre narrative with Marlee Matlin as a preoccupied photographer, whose personal regeneration illustrates the film’s themes. Judged as documentary, the film seems completely woolly. But I have to admit it caught me at a moment when I was predisposed to its thesis, so I basically lapped it up.

It’s surprisingly outspoken in its denunciation of organized religion – given its premise of individual possibility, it dismisses the image of a controlling God as the “height of arrogance” on the part of those who perpetrate this image. Which confirms this as a liberal “blue state” movie. A brief aside at this point. Since I was writing about film festival movies through November, I wasn’t tempted to digress onto the US election. Whatever I might have said, it wouldn’t have been pretty. But now, with two months’ buffer, I’ll just quote What the Bleep: “The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery.” I think Bush’s victory might have succeeded in putting all of us there.

Fall Documentaries

At the other end of the documentary spectrum, Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s The Take zoomed in on a small beacon of progressivity in Argentina, where worker collectives are taking back control of factories brought to their knees by Carlos Menem’s reckless free-market policies. It’s a shame the movie couldn’t have provided a bit more context, but it was good reporting, missing Michael Moore’s agitprop exuberance and the analytical edge of The Corporation, but also lacking the occasional pretensions of both. Lurking as the villain in the film’s background was the International Monetary Fund, an organization that came in for further bashing in the one-of-a-kind The Yes Men. This follows a couple of guys who carry out a sort of global performance art, wrangling speech and TV invitations in the guise of IMF representatives, and then delivering monstrous pronouncements with a straight-faced reasonability that reels in their audiences. I also went to Team America: World Police in the hope of further pointed political satire, but came away severely disappointed.

The fall had its usual quota of feel good movies, and I’ll confess to getting distinctly teary at the death of Tinkerbell (presaging that of Kate Winslet) in Finding Neverland. On the whole the film was distinctly familiar, albeit pleasant, boosted by yet another remarkable Johnny Depp performance. Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason had to strenuously break the happy ending established at the end of the first movie before equally strenuously reinstating it, but Renee Zellweger’s dedication (however misplaced) gave it more verisimilitude than it deserved. Shall we Dance had little reason for existing, and the remake of Alfie even less than that.

I didn't like The Motorcycle Diaries as much as most reviewers – it was pictorial and gently intriguing but the character of Che Guevara was utterly idealized, and the film’s frail attempts to signal his future development seemed pasted-on. Another overpraised film, Enduring Love, seemed to me no more than standard stalker-slasher stuff with a pretentious coating of gush.

Friday Night Lights was quite a bit more intriguing. I saw it in a mall in Calgary, where the movie’s painstaking excavation of a small football-obsessed town seemed (to these unschooled Eastern eyes) to carry mysterious resonance. Birth was an accomplished but ultimately minor exercise in style over content. Saw was bewildering and off-putting.

The fall’s big epic, Oliver Stone’s Alexander, was a real mixed bag. There’s an intriguing 90-minute picture buried in there, carrying considerable contemporary resonance, about a radical imperialist ambition. Unfortunately, what with all the padding, the film lasts twice that long, and much of it is dire. Like Martin Scorsese with Gangs of New York, it feels as if the film’s logistical demands simply defeated Stone’s energy and ability to control the material.

The season’s biggest hit, The Incredibles, impressed me for its visuals and for its surprising subtlety, although I found the plot itself somewhat tedious. As no particular fan of animation, I didn’t yield to the movie as completely as I did to The Triplets of Belleville or Spirited Away. I have to confess that I didn’t see The Spongebob Squarepants Movie.

The Season’s Best

Best of all, Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake. It may be slightly less philosophically exhilarating than his Topsy-Turvy, but otherwise stands at the peak of his amazing body of work. The film’s first hour, with amazing fluency and almost supernatural attention to time and place, sketches a cross section of activities and encounters that fully convey the limited parameters of 1920’s working-class Britain, revolving around a housewife who among a plethora of good deeds “helps out girls in trouble” – she performs abortions for them. When the police apprehend her, her world collapses – she becomes all but catatonic, and we see how fragile is the definition of a woman in such limited environs.

The film is a remarkable depiction of sexuality. Vera, despite her transgressive behaviour, seems effectively sexless, and every character around her represents a slightly different perspective on sex and its conditioning by class. It’s unspeakably sad and remarkably contoured; once in a while, looking at some of Leigh’s sad sack characters, you can see why some detect a note of condescension in his approach, but who else immerses himself in this world with such tenacity?

All that, as well as a great season of Maurice Pialat movies and the extended The Big Red One and Queimada at the Cinematheque, and the John Cassavetes DVD boxed set to watch at home. And I didn’t see National Treasure, The Polar Express and dozens of others. So that’s the fall season taken care of...and now on to winter...

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