Monday, May 26, 2014

Summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2005)

They say that only popcorn movies open in the summer, but how would the Carlton and Cumberland keep going if that were true? On one weekend this summer, Last Days and 2046 and The Aristocrats all opened – a true embarrassment of riches. With film festival articles starting next week I can either ignore this summer bounty or else speed through it, and I’m choosing to do the latter.

Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers was one of the season’s most high-profile films, and one of its best. The plot of so-laidback-he’s-hardly-there Bill Murray visiting a stream of old girlfriends has an easy sweetness, bolstered by wonderful performances from all concerned. For some of its length it’s a little underwhelming, with the director’s deadpan minimalism seeming like an affectation rather than a meaningful worldview. Ultimately though it all comes together, placing Murray at the centre of a significant perception shift, and allowing you to see the craft and nuance behind the movie’s every element. The Life Aquatic showed that Murray’s impassiveness, if overly indulged, can sink a film, but Broken Flowers is an excellent contrivance – a complex and rich character study of a near non-character.

Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 is an astonishing work of cinematic design – one of those films that rapidly exhausts your powers of absorption on first viewing. The director reportedly reedited the film continually over a period of several years, and the result is an extraordinarily intricate tapestry of memory and association. It takes off from Wong’s In the Mood for Love, based around the same late 60’s Hong Kong setting, but the canvas now involves multiple women, multiple moments of loss and regret, and an occasional evocation of future worlds. The film uses time as an accordion, thrilling you with its structural sophistication; it’s also emotionally enthralling and immensely evocative. 

Gus Van Sant’s Last Days continues his somewhat admirable minimalist vein, following the demise of a Kurt Cobain-like rock star in long, vague takes. But Van Sant always seems vague in interviews about what this approach is specifically meant to yield. The film seems to me most effective as a deadpan comedy, functioning on simple incongruity, with any more complex payoff being almost entirely a matter of personal inclination. In contrast, The Aristocrats sold itself as perhaps the most verbally obscene movie ever made, with a hundred comics or so riffing on the same dirty joke. I found it interesting and well-constructed, but (perhaps inevitably) not very funny. Indeed, with its artful blending of old timers like Phyllis Diller and the Smothers Brothers with (I guess) the contemporary cream of the crop, the film achieves a peculiar sense of familial warmth. It reminded me of those scenes in The Sunshine Boys where the old timers discuss how words sound funnier with a “k” in them.

Don Roos’ Happy Endings is another ambitious collage of contemporary life problems, strenuously liberal in its foregrounding of abortion, gay parenting, calculated promiscuity and so forth. It ends on a rendition of Just the Way you Are, and the song’s gooey tolerance is about as much of a philosophy as the movie possesses. Wes Craven’s Red Eye can hardly be analyzed to the extent of his Last House on the Left, but it’s one of the year’s most engaging genre pieces – tight, unpretentious, putting across an unremarkable plot with surprising attention to tone and background colour. As a secondary point, it confirms how the once-transcendent horrors of 9/11 have now become another all-purpose ingredient in the thriller pantry.

The 40 Year Old Virgin is a pleasant little comedy, effectively tapping the eternally rewarding waters of male idiocy in all matters involving women. Steve Carell is a great asset in the title role, even if the movie gets too many of its laughs simply from how he pronounces such words as “ho” and “nasty.” November is an extremely minimal psychological creep piece, seemingly set mostly (if not entirely – it’s not altogether clear) within Courtney Cox’s mind. It exhibits a fair bit of finesse, but doesn’t seem relevant to anything at all outside its own self-absorbed coordinates. The Lost Embrace is an Argentinean film set around a young slacker-type guy and his acquaintances in a down-at-heel Buenos Aires mall. As it proudly proclaims at the end, nothing changes much in the course of the movie, and yet totting it up afterwards you register dozens of small readjustments and transformations, cumulatively adding to a warm portrayal of life percolating within tight parameters. Of course, this is often the raw material of small films, but this one’s ramshackle sensitivity lifts it above the norm.

Rize is a minor documentary, although effective in depicting how a frenetic brand of dance provides an enclave of hope in Los Angeles’ worst urban neighborhoods. Murderball, another documentary, about wheelchair rugby, is perfectly packaged for easy gratification – it’s the epitome of the new breed of documentary, almost indistinguishable from fiction. Beyond the obvious (man, those wheelchair rugby players are really serious) I’m not sure what anyone would learn from it. The Bridge of San Luis Rey comes with a bizarrely over-ample cast (de Niro, Keitel), and sweeps them all off the bridge through endless windiness and limited sense of purpose. Saraband is classic Ingmar Bergman, an often-magisterial study in the precariousness of bonds, stunningly intuitive in every respect.

Hustle and Flow, about a pimp who turns to rap music, is a rather bizarre mixture of gritty urban expose and feel-good fantasy. It has a real plaintiveness at times, and the music is great (I even bought the soundtrack album), but even at its most repellent (usually in its depiction of women) it stirs in a little sugar. The Island has pretty good plotting in a textbook kind of way, but comes across overall as one of the all-time great examples in how Hollywood turns great ideas (in this case about human cloning) into junk, with an initial shallow dedication suddenly thrown aside for the sake of truly stupid stunts and set-ups.

The Beautiful County, about a Vietnamese man’s voyage to find his long-separated father, is always interesting but marred by pervasive simplicity and melodramatic tendencies. The Syrian Bride, about a marriage on the Golan Heights, also seems somewhat schematic, sometimes feeling more like a blueprint than an actual movie, but to me at least the situation it depicted is so intriguing and informative that its obvious faults take on lesser significance.

And no, I’m afraid I didn’t see Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. Nor The Wedding Crashers, although I did think about that one. And now on to the film festival,

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