Monday, September 15, 2014

More fall movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2005)

Phil Morrison’s Junebug is one of the season’s wonders. It’s a low budget film about a North Carolina family where the eldest son, who long ago moved away to Chicago, returns to visit, with a sophisticated new wife. It’s an astoundingly subtle picture, spare but perfectly weighted, accumulating a remarkable series of implications. No recent film better portrays the “American heartland” so often referred to – George W. Bush isn’t mentioned in the movie, but it tells you everything you need to know about how he gets away with it – and it’s a borderline-horrific portrayal of family dynamics. The film is ambiguous enough that it could alternatively be read as a light, quirky semi-comedy (it works just fine as such) – as such it’s a masterful prism for exposing the prevailing complacency, and a great achievement by the unknown Morrison.

Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, who spent thirteen summers living in the wilds of Alaska among the bears, fancying himself their friend and protector, until one of them ate him. Treadwell left behind a hundred hours of video footage – containing some stunning footage of the bears, and much semi-crazed rambling on his part. This must have constituted a godsend for Herzog, and he uses the found material with superb intuition and judgment, fleshing out Treadwell’s story with interviews, and creating something that’s both scrupulous and respectful while remaining true to his own (less romantic but as bull-headed) sensibility. The film has been widely acclaimed, setting up the tantalizing possibility of Werner Herzog winning an Oscar?

Separate Lies, written and directed by Julian Fellowes, is a very British chronicle of an upper-middle class couple ripped apart by adultery and accidental homicide. It’s much less scintillating than Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (the screenplay for which won Fellowes an Oscar), but has some good moments (mainly thanks to lead actor Tom Wilkinson) and an intriguing overall shape. The German film The Edukators follows three young people whose bite-sized political activism suddenly lands them in big trouble; the movie dwindles away as it progresses, becoming increasingly arbitrary and energy-less, and failing  to offer as much actual political content as the premise seems to warrant.

Two for the Money, with Al Pacino mentoring Matthew McConaughey through a decline and fall as a big-time sports betting advisor, is a badly under-nourished movie with limited pay-off – Pacino may actually have played the part in his sleep. Tony Scott’s Domino, loosely based on real-life bounty hunter Domino Harvey, is an even bigger mess, and it received apocalyptically bad reviews in many quarters. This is not unfair, although the film’s escalating incoherence, frantic hyperactivity, odd approach to reality, and intermittent hints of social and political consciousness sometimes suggest (without ever actually delivering) true turbulent ambition. At the other end of the scale, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is a levelheaded account of a 50’s mother-of-ten who keeps the family afloat by her consistent success in skill-testing competitions. The material is inherently rather drab, but director Jane Anderson finds entertaining ways to ventilate it, and it pushes the sentimental buttons deftly enough. Ultimately though it’s considerably less resonant than Far From Heaven and The Hours, in which star Julianne Moore played largely similar roles. 

Marc Forster’s Stay is yet another movie in which it’s clear from the start that things are not as they seem, and the only object is to wait for the exact nature of the revelation (is it all a dream? are they characters in a book? are they within a scientific experiment on an alien planet? etc.), and to hope you extract some fun and stimulation along the way. The film has Ewan MacGregor as a psychiatrist treating a troubled young man (Ryan Gosling) who intends to kill himself in a few days’ time; Naomi Watts is the doctor’s girlfriend, herself a survivor of a past suicide attempt. The movie is technically well executed, but is gloomy and monotonous, and the pay-off adds little to the catalogue – I’m sure a second viewing would allow a better appreciation of the intricacy of the film’s design, but would not be time well spent in any other sense. After Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, this seems like a bizarre retrenchment by Forster, only explicable as some kind of technical self-training exercise.

Ben Younger’s Prime is a comedy (I guess) about a Jewish psychiatrist who finds out her 37-year-old (non-Jewish) female patient is dating her 23-year-old son...and doesn’t like it. The movie has zero laughs, although I admit I wore a benevolent smile through much of it, largely because of the highly empathetic, too-good-for-the-movie performance by Uma Thurman as the patient (the usually mightier Meryl Streep is on this occasion no better than the movie requires). The thing has no authorial personality, and not to get extra-textual, but now that we have the inspirational precedent of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, the ending seems gutless.

Mirrormask is a British fantasy from the Jim Henson studios, about a little girl who enters a dream world; some of the design elements, but not the overall tone (which is surprisingly low-key and uninsistent), are reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki. Twenty years ago the movie would surely have seemed like a marvel, but we are in an age of visual marvels if of nothing else, and it could do no better than a single screen at Canada Square. Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man is another barely appreciated film, a semi-comic character study of Nicolas Cage’s local TV forecaster. Thirty years ago it might have been directed by Robert Altman and amounted to something darkly probing; instead, it’s often overly glib and scattershot, with a very soft arrival point. Michael Caine, as Cage’s terminally ill father, is the actor best attuned to the material’s existential possibilities.

Sam Mendes’ Jarhead starts off like a remake of Full Metal Jacket and explicitly references Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, but the first President Bush’s Iraqi war was no Vietnam, and the film shows how a young recruit’s jittery dreams of action end up in prolonged frustration, generating substantial existential malaise. It’s an intriguing and technically impressive film, and its inherently undramatic core is quite enterprising for a big budget Hollywood film (although it works around this by weaving in some combat near misses and lots of other often-goofy incident). The picture’s ultimate purpose is a little ambiguous – it’s too engaged by military spectacle to convince as being antiwar, but if it’s merely anti- the particular war depicted, then it’s missing a lot of political context (its main point is probably broader, about the inherent arbitrary chaos of war’s impact on the individual). Still, I prefer this to the ham-fisted, basically hypocritical anti-violence musings of Mendes’ last film Road to Perdition.

More next time...

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