Sunday, February 23, 2014

May movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2007)

In Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, a husband must put his wife into a residential facility after 44 years together, when she starts to develop Alzheimer’s; she’s initially too lucid for her new surroundings, but finds a way of adapting that only seems to accelerate her decline, and widens the gulf between them, until he sees the inevitability of things. Julie Christie is utterly luminous as Fiona, conveying the jagged contours of her disintegrating consciousness so precisely that it’s as if she were drawing a map; Gordon Pinsent as her husband is almost as moving. The film is, by its nature, depressing, but in a way that’s emotionally true and eloquent. It’s based on a short story by Alice Munro, and always feels distinctly literary – living in usually snow-bound isolation, the couple read poetry to each other and each scene is precisely investigated and crafted. At times, given the ugliness of the disease and its consequences, I found it a little too pristine - for example, we hardly sense the full misery of the facility’s dreaded second floor, where patients are moved after a certain stage of decline. In particular perhaps, the ending – turning on what would have to be an incredibly wrenching, turbulent compromise, overemphasizes structural tidiness, irony and perseverance. But it’s difficult to blame a director as young and enterprising as Polley for retaining a certain measure of idealism in this.

The Valet

At the other end of the directorial spectrum, in so many senses, is Francis Veber, who turns 70 this year. Over the years he’s perfected his M.O. – dreadful, garish comedies that seem lost in time. The latest of these, The Valet, is about a wealthy businessman who’s sleeping with a gorgeous supermodel; when his wife gets suspicious, he pays a lowly parking valet to move in with his girlfriend. No pesky nuances and shadings in Veber-land – each character is allowed a couple of traits at the most, and a scene doesn’t so much lead into the next as collapse into it. And Veber’s handling of actors resembles some kind of perverse laboratory – on this occasion drawing out the worst-ever performance from the great Daniel Auteuil. Like several other Veber movies, it’ll probably be remade by Hollywood within a few years, and then it’ll be even worse!    

I may have had a bit of a crush on Adrienne Shelly after her first two films, The Unbelievable Truth and Trust, both directed by Hal Hartley. Hartley seemed uniquely weird and promising at the time, and Shelly was a spiky, accessible local goddess. Well, Hal Hartley lost his inspiration in a big way – his new movie Fay Grim is a sad spectacle. And Adrienne Shelly is dead – murdered in her building last November by a construction worker, reportedly after an argument about keeping the noise down. She’d been barely visible for the last fifteen years, taking lesser roles in lesser films. But she was working on becoming a director, and when she died she’d just completed her first feature film, Waitress. She also wrote it and plays a supporting role (treating herself quite unflatteringly). 


This background makes an inherently quite poignant film even more so; it’s surprisingly successful, and would no doubt have opened up further possibilities for Shelly. Keri Russell plays a waitress and ace baker of pies, stuck in a lousy marriage to a self-absorbed control freak, secretly hoarding away money to plan her escape. She finds herself pregnant, then falls in love with her gynecologist. Meanwhile, her two colleagues at the diner tinker with their own lives.

Sounds pretty hokey, and I didn’t even mention Andy Griffith, playing the owner of the diner, a curmudgeon with a heart of, well, you know. The movie is studiedly mild – nothing in it bites as much as it might have – but there’s a lot of grit and clear thinking baked in there too. The movie focuses on the circumscribed choices of normal working women, leading them to make decisions which even their best friends might view as settling for less, or morally questionable; but when you’re stuck in the same place with the same people, how much room for manoeuvre do you have? (no doubt there’s something here of a transplanted metaphor for Shelly’s own experience). The movie treats its men generously – even Jeremy Sisto’s portrayal of the wretched husband is unusually subtle – while remaining resolute that this isn’t their story. And the ending feels about right, if you can look past the tragic fact that the two-year old girl in the last scene is played by Shelly’s own daughter. Her ending was too freakish to constitute much of an emblem for the continuing challenges of women, and yet the echoes are awfully unsettling.

Spider-Man 3

It’s hard to write a review of Spider-Man 3 that doesn’t simply recycle dozens of past reviews of underwhelming Hollywood blockbusters – the movie doesn’t even have the panache to fail with any great distinction. At least it’s not one of those mechanical, cold creations where you doze from one explosion to the next; in fact the film’s greater failing is that it’s so determined to continue the emphasis of its two predecessors on Peter Parker’s character, on the emotional contours of being Spiderman. In practice though this only means that we go through yet another round with his girlfriend, his former best friend who now hates him, his wise old aunt, and his ever-present obsession with the death of his wise old uncle, all without generating anything new. The set-up of the villains is laboured, and here too the movie seems to be suffering from an imagination deficit. And finally, it’s yet another big-budget movie that pushes digital technology into the realm of counter-productivity – the sense of artificiality is pervasive, if only because it’s so clear how none of the actors are sweating, or suffering, or straining (it’s largely the commitment to these qualities that made Casino Royale so relatively effective). Naturally, it enjoyed the biggest opening weekend of all time.

Jindabyne, directed by Ray Lawrence, is an intriguing Australian drama, treating some familiar family dynamics very deftly, and then ventilating the film’s texture with a highly specific sense of place. It’s a small, mostly barren looking New South Wales town, built on the haunting shores of a former settlement that’s now submerged beneath a lake. It’s initially odd that the film’s main focus is a couple played by Laura Linney and Gabriel Byrne, neither attempting Australian accents, but their obvious (largely unexplained) otherness generates some useful resonances. Byrne’s character goes away with some buddies on a weekend fishing trip; they find a dead body floating in a river, but keep fishing for a few days before reporting it; when this comes out, the men are pilloried in their community, and the couple’s fragile marriage almost collapses. The film weaves a very diverse tapestry, and might have generated greater overall complexity and after-effect with less tidy resolutions to some of its strands, but it’s alluringly dense with instability, foreboding and danger.

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