Sunday, November 9, 2014

2008 Toronto Film Festival - Part 4

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)

Vinyan (Fabrice Du Welz)

One of my few largely random choices this year, this is a broodingly exotic drama about a couple (Emmanuelle Beart and Rufus Sewell) who lost their son in the 2004 tsunami; still in Thailand, the wife becomes convinced the boy is alive, over the Burmese border. She convinces her husband they should pay a shady character to get them there, and from then on the film reminded me increasingly of Apocalypse Now, although with a very different heart of darkness. Their journey is a deliberately murky mélange of menace, spirituality, spectacular (but not overly dwelled-on) landscapes, swirling river mist, and escalating ill fortune and madness. It’s quite fascinating, although many of the elements seem questionable: the set-up appears rather rushed, the ending fanciful (if impactful), many of the details contrived. Du Welz doesn’t always seem in full control of his apparatus – an early scene in the night of the city feels as if he mounted the camera on the head of a frantic goat and just accepted whatever jumble of images resulted. The beautiful Beart (I said the choice was largely random) is enormously compelling, even if, again, her character’s psychology never completely convinces.

Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski)

Skolimowski was a key figure of the 60’s through the early 80’s – bursting with radical energy out of his native Poland and becoming an exotic wanderer of a kind you seldom see now. His best-known film may be the compelling Deep End, which still turns up on the Scream cable channel occasionally; you might also remember Moonlighting, with Jeremy Irons as a Polish labourer stranded in London. His last work, Ferdyduke, was by most accounts a hodgepodge, and Skolimowski has not directed in the seventeen years since then (he turned up as an actor in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, playing Naomi Watts’ hot-blooded uncle). The new film takes him right back to his roots, to the most unprepossessing Polish locations and characters possible. The protagonist is a sad middle-aged lump of a man, recently out of jail for a rape he didn’t commit, who develops an attachment to a woman living in an adjacent block of nurses’ quarters; at first he spies on her through binoculars, then starts to sneak into her room at night (having fortified her sugar supply with ground-up sleeping pills). It has a wonderfully creepy opening, slyly misleading us about the meaning of certain events, and establishing a feeling of grey, unadorned (but very specifically visualized) dread that persists through much of the film. To digress for a second, I always tend to think of Skolimowski and Roman Polanski as being on the same general page, and I recently rewatched Polanski’s late-90’s thriller The Ninth Gate – where Johnny Depp tracks down the long-buried secret of communing with Satan. I enjoyed the fluidity of it in a way, but I couldn’t stop thinking that Polanski must feel a sense of loss within himself, at how the precise intimations of pain and evil in his best earlier work blanded out into mere glossy artifice. The Pianist subsequently took him somewhat back in the right direction, but he’s a rich international figure now – it’s plainly too late. Skolimowski by contrast, never as feted or scrutinized even at his peak, could yet experience a true artistic revitalization. Four Nights with Anna isn’t quite that – for all its intrigue and impeccable handling (and, almost in the margins, its concise portrait of the continuing limitations and lingering authoritarianism in the post-Communist East), it’s ultimately just too minor I think. But this is one of my favourite things about movies, when the old guys show who’s still in charge.

Adam Resurrected (Paul Schrader)

For some reason, I end up mentioning Schrader in this space more than almost any other director – the arc of his career (writing Taxi Driver; directing movies from American Gigolo to Affliction) and his personal travails (born into strict religious fundamentalism; all kinds of obsessions and addictions since then) fascinates me, even though the impact of his films on me is hit and miss. The new film is in the higher echelon of his work, although it’s also easy to criticize. Jeff Goldblum plays a Jewish entertainer who survives the death camp by mimicking a dog for the depraved camp commander (Willem Dafoe) and playing the violin as the victims (even his own wife and daughter) march to the gas chamber. In the 50’s he’s in Israel, frequently institutionalized at a facility in the middle of the desert, where he comes across a boy who imagines himself a dog; this allows Adam a symbolic opportunity to redeem himself, by leading the youth out of his madness. That basic set-up seems forced and unconvincing, but the film contains a lot of grim inventiveness, and Goldblum is as charismatic and inventive as he’s ever been. On the other hand, it’s not clear that Schrader ever fully worked out his attitude on the material – his handling of the material in the camps seems particularly wan, and the ending strikes an odd note. I don’t think the movie will stand as much more than a curio, but it takes on more resonance if viewed as the latest in Schrader’s many portrayals of obsessed, extreme individuals.

Appaloosa (Ed Harris)

Harris’ second film as director (the first was Pollock) is a mostly conventional Western, benefiting from the relative rarity of even conventional Westerns nowadays, and from a few unusual angles on the material. Harris and Viggo Mortensen play two wandering “peacekeepers” engaged to bring order to a small town terrorized by the local bigshot (Jeremy Irons) and his gang. The twists and turns conjure up echoes of virtually every movie ever made in the genre, although only intermittently to the film’s advantage. Harris doesn’t bring much visual distinction to the exercise (compared to Leone); the atmosphere is thin and rather antiseptic (compared to Peckinpah); the occasional humour is shallow and repetitive (compared to Hawks). Most interesting is the arc of the character played by Renee Zellweger - a widow who draws Harris’ affections. She takes on substantially more layering than we expect, and then the movie doesn’t extract the usual price from her either, which sets up an unusual, quite ambiguous ending. It’s good entertainment overall, although a very typical festival choice – no one will ever again be as enthusiastic about it as they were, sight unseen, that glitzy night on the red carpet.

And overall…

Many say it was a lesser festival this year, but my little piece of it (confined this year to just one or two films every day) worked out as well as I could possibly have hoped for. I’ll especially look forward to seeing Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Story again, but I was very consistently stimulated and stretched, and barely ever bored. So no complaints from me!

2008 Toronto Film Festival - Part 3

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)

24 City (Jia Zhang-ke)

Jia is one of the most interesting filmmakers to watch right now, partly because he’s hooked in to one of the world’s most fascinating subjects – China’s continuing modernization and the effect upon its inhabitants. His greatest expression of the theme was in The World a few years ago: since then he’s taken a more incremental approach, exploring with documentary and semi-documentary techniques. 24 City continues this project, focusing on a long-standing Chengdu factory now being demolished, to be replaced by a modern commercial/residential complex, and interviewing a cross-section of those affected (some of them real; others played by actress, notably by Joan Chen who achieved fame in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor). The recurring theme is the place, or even the plausibility, of individual desires and dreams and aspirations, set against a social and industrial momentum that will marginalize, if not crush, all but the strongest/most fortunate (I was lucky enough to go to China a few years ago – mostly to Beijing and Hong Kong but also a little off the beaten track – and I’ve never felt so fully how one might simply get swallowed up). So whereas the relatively fortunate can dwell on a memory of breaking up with a girlfriend, and remembering how she resembled the heroine of a particular TV show; for others, the testimony is much grimmer, testifying to a lifelong battle for self-actualization, if not for basic human rights. Jia ventilates his film with often-ironic snatches of popular song, poetry, and asides, and overall it’s a compelling social document. My only reservation (as it was with his last film Still Life, which built a not entirely dissimilar project around the dislocation of the Three Gorges dam project) is that Jia is so talented that I can’t help feeling we’re missing out on potentially more ambitious and even more resonant works.

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)

Assayas has recently seemed preoccupied by the intersection of tech and trashiness in the confusing new world; Demonlover and Boarding Gate had a perfect feel for contemporary turbocharged alienation, but left many people feeling merely, well, alienated. The new film is superficially far removed from there – one of those typically French creations (with Juliette Binoche yet!) built around family get-togethers and conflicts. In this case, the matriarch – who’s largely dedicated her later life to preserving the memory of her uncle, a famous painter – dies, and her children must decide what to do with the house and its contents (and by extension with the heritage and worldview they represent). Two of the siblings work outside France in the new global economy; the third lives in Paris and has written a book questioning whether the economy – as usually discussed – even exists. Not hard to guess whose views prevail, and there lies the thematic link to the other recent films. Put that way, the film sounds fairly straightforward – take for example the use of a modern telephone (not even an iphone!) as a symbol of too much progress. But it’s very skillfully handled (Assayas is a master coordinator of overlapping movement, and the house and its artifacts are wonderfully conceived), and I found it quite gracefully moving overall. Assayas is no doubt a pragmatist, but the film’s sense of loss is palpable and convincing – whether directed at furniture removed from context and function into a stark museum where visitors merely snooze by on the way to the jazzier stuff, or even at the way that transgression and misdemeanor aren’t as poetically alluring as they used to be. The cast is uniformly ideal.

It Might Get Loud (Davis Guggenheim)

Guggenheim’s follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth is an all-too-convenient contrivance – he brings together three generations of rock electric guitar mastery, to see how loud it gets (answer – not as much as you might think or hope). The participants are old pro Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, U2’s famously obsessive stickler The Edge, and Jack White from The White Stripes, who most prizes atmosphere and authenticity. The actual encounter makes up relatively little of the film though, and what there is of it is pretty lifeless – the rest is separately shot footage and archival retrospectives of the three. It’s all entertaining of course, but it doesn’t feel like a very logical or necessary movie, and it doesn’t even do that good a job of showcasing the music. An Inconvenient Truth was obviously acclaimed more for the inherent worthiness of its content than for any cinematic skill – likewise, Guggenheim doesn’t bring much to the table here…indeed I’m not sure he fully realizes what’s on the table.

Nuit de Chien (Werner Schroeter)

Schroeter has been cited as a major art-house name for decades now, and his new film made the festival’s Masters section, but I don’t know when anyone might actually get a chance to see his work. The profile on the Senses of Cinema website says that ambiguity is “a constant trait of his films (allowing) for a degree of openness that tends either to engage or frustrate viewers depending on their tastes...his work is a testament to the very possibility of the coexistence of both celebration and parody, of both 'high' and 'low.'” His latest, the first in six years, is set in an unnamed European city undergoing major political breakdown. A high-ranking soldier returns in the middle of all this, in search of the woman he loves; along the way he brushes up against the various military and secret police factional leaders, skirmishing and plotting for control, all of which is seemingly hopeless anyway in the shadow of a pending invading force. There’s no sign of what caused the breakdown, and throughout the city little pockets of activity – usually involving hostesses, seedy bars, or surprisingly tenacious cab drivers – continue in hardy isolation. Schroeter’s approach is stark – not exactly realistic, there’s a knowing air of baroque melodrama to much of it – and of course, given the subject matter, there’s a pervasive resignation (the opening and closing epigram, intoning that “death will come when it will come,” seems to warn against our investing ourselves in the film’s apparent narrative). Given his reputation though, it works better as a semi-conventional yarn than I expected (indeed, perhaps both celebrating and parodying the broad social breakdown genre). Being totally new to his work (and maybe even if I wasn’t), it’s hard to determine what more complex strategies might lie below the film’s surface, and I do find myself wondering whether it’s viable just to dip into this one presumably late work, without any prior grounding. But maybe the use in one scene of Orson Welles’ voice from his classic War of the Worlds hoax is a tip-off not to take it too seriously. The festival program calls the film an “extraordinary gift,” but doesn’t offer much of a hint of what the specific nature of the gift might be.

2008 Toronto Film Festival - Part 2

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)

Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)

Leigh has had a long and prestigious career but there’s a definite lack of consensus on what it amounts to. Is he an insightful chronicler of some deep truth about ordinary people, or a quirky grump off on his own peculiar ledge? I’m not sure myself, but I think he’s achieved his best work – with Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake – when focused on a particular historical or social purpose; at other times (as with All or Nothing) the films often seem to drift. The new movie, back in the present day, is built around the kind of relentlessly cheerful character who’s popped up in the margins of some of his previous films – 30-year-old Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a nursery school teacher who goes through life with a quip for every occasion and an almost pathological inability not to look at the bright side. Leigh is very good of course with the banter of the English masses (at times the movie just carries you along in a string of giggles), and although there’s little overt political content here, the film slowly lets in more of society’s dark and drab sides. In particular there’s Poppy’s tightly wound driving instructor, who simply can’t handle her, and there’s a great one-off scene with a homeless man who lurches between operatic incoherence and sharp lucidity (although Leigh has created scenes like this before too). Ultimately, there’s not much more to all this than the observation of Poppy’s best friend that “It’s hard being a grown-up,” which I suppose might broadly be what virtually every great film is about. But Poppy is a distinctive enough creation that she comes to seem almost radical. Ultimately I don’t think the film will change anyone’s opinions about Leigh, but I was firmly on board for the whole thing.

Achilles and the Tortoise (Takeshi Kitano)

Actor-director Kitano’s career has been illustrious enough to get him to the festival’s “Masters” section - he won the top price at the Venice Festival for Hana-Bi and his Zatoichi won the TIFF people’s choice award in 2003. There’s a grab-bag aspect to his work, but he’s achieved some beauty and plenty of deadpan diversion. With his last few films he’s shaken off his tough-guy origins, but at the cost of too much self-absorption. The new one is a nice little movie, straining for significance (the title metaphor doesn’t count for much) built around the intriguing concept of a dedicated life long artist who has lots of basic skill and imagination but lacks the je ne sais quoi that separates the notables from the also-rans. It takes us from his bourgeois childhood, ending in catastrophic bust, through art-school hi-jinks and an adulthood of stoic disappointments, pumped up throughout by the dazzling parade of his unwanted creations. Kitano’s expressionless block of a presence is perfectly suited to embodying the character’s older years. Throw in the recurring motif of death (but always with the sheen of art) and it makes for an engaging creation, although it’s tempting to take the easy criticism and to say that the film, like its protagonist, is more facile and resourceful than actually meaningful. This could of course be a clever fusion of form and content, a structure of bluffs and double bluffs, except that Kitano’s recent work suggests that, nah, this is actually as good as he could do.

Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino)

Sorrentino’s film probably isn’t ideally suited for those who, like me, have only a vague knowledge of post-war Italian politics (as in, it’s really dysfunctional, and a lot of people got blown up) – even the opening explanatory screen-scroll is barely penetrable. So this is a film where you have to go with the big picture, but then that’s all confusing too. Artfully so of course, for isn’t the false promise of simplicity and clarity in politics one of the great damaging illusions of our times? (cue Sarah Palin metaphor). The subject is Giulio Andreotti, who was several times Italian prime minister, maintained (as depicted here) a complex web of connections while remaining personally repressed and inscrutable, and was eventually indicted for complicity in Mafia crimes. “You’re either the most cunning criminal in the country,” says an acquaintance, “or the most persecuted man in Italy.” It’s likely that the film’s Andreotti – a man we see rip a page out of a mystery novel because he doesn’t want to know the killer – couldn’t tell you himself. The film has a silky menace that evokes the dark texture of the Godfather films (an obvious reference point in various ways); it also incorporates hints of Sergio Leone and others, although Sorrentino is much more actively experimental and out to dazzle with technique (which he frequently does, although again, not always comprehensibly). For outsiders (and no doubt largely for insiders), the murkiness about what Andreotti actually achieved (beyond a broad reference to his contribution to steering through the Cold War) makes it hard to assess his place on the moral spectrum. Still, it’s not a small achievement to make a movie that’s so compelling while yet leaving you feeling so grievously under-resourced.

Les plages d’Agnes (Agnes Varda)

Varda is over 80 now and has been making films for over 50 years, most recently a series of filmic essays often drawing on her own prodigiously creative existence. The latest is notionally based on the importance of various beaches in her life, but this is merely the starting point for another remarkably graceful reverie on family, friends, memory, love, loss, art and, always, cinema. She’s a compulsive recycler (one of her best-loved films The Gleaners and I took off from this trait) – I’ve now seen some of this footage (such as Jim Morrison visiting the set of Donkey Skin) three or four times in various places, and her work knowingly draws (detractors, although I’m not sure there are many of them, would say coasts) on her audience’s affection for her. The film certainly rewards it though, never more than when she once again pays tribute to her late husband Jacques Demy (who made The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), who she clearly still misses keenly after 18 years and discusses here more frankly in some ways than I’ve seen before. Varda’s resources are stunning – she visits people she shot as children in her first film La Pointe Courte; displays her extra-cinematic work from 50’s photos of China to recent art installations; dresses up as a giant potato; throws in some full-frontal nudity; talks (allegedly anyway) to fellow documentarian Chris Marker, who’s hiding behind a giant cartoon cat with a disguised voice; builds herself a makeshift beach in the middle of her Paris neighbourhood…all connected so subtly and fluidly that almost immediately afterwards you struggle to recall how she could possibly have done it.

2008 Toronto Film Festival - Part 1

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)

35 Rhums (Claire Denis)

Denis’ films appear regularly at the festival but are rather hard to see otherwise. Her best-known may be the 1999 Beau Travail, a dream-like memory of the French Foreign Legion. I saw it twice but still found it hard to penetrate. Since then I’ve only seen Trouble Every Day, a horror movie of sorts – overflowing with fascinating, superficially contradictory elements, but very easy to lose one’s bearings in (when I saw it, many people simply walked out). This is to say that Denis’ films are not easy. 35 Rhums seems much more accommodating on the surface – a gentle portrayal of a black single father and his daughter, and some of the people in their vicinity. The title refers to the father’s notion (which he may have invented himself) that notable life-changing occasions need to be marked by 35 shots of rum; a practice that on the face of it could only result in obliterating the very memory being celebrated. This device symbolizes the film’s broader balancing between life-changing events and others which – although inherently transient - may carry as much spiritual weight at least at the time and perhaps even (given the vagaries of personality) permanently. Take for example the scene where one character, realizing that his 17-year-old (and apparently fondly regarded) cat has died during the night, throws it and its toys in the trash and almost immediately announces his intention to take a job overseas, given his sudden absence of ties. The film incorporates some wonderful invention and observation of character – overall, grappling with Denis’ complexity is as pleasurable and immediately rewarding here as I’ve ever known it to be.

Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)

Folman’s film is in the animated genre of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, films that essentially paint on top of real life, in the hope perhaps of attaining something more vivid, heightened and meaningful than “mere” photographic representation (reportedly it’s a mixture of “flash animation, traditional hand-drawn technique, and computer-enhanced 3-D modeling”). It’s an investigation in memory, carried out at a 20-year distance by a former Israeli soldier (the director himself) who’s lost most of his recall of what he did, and tries to reconstruct it by interviewing past colleagues and others. After such a period, of course, recovered memory might be indistinguishable from retroactive invention, and for a while it seems the film may be more interesting in structure and style than historical illumination. But the closing sequences – focusing on a 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians – compellingly wash away that impression (as the program book notes though, there’s little or no explicit political content). Just as memory and history intertwine, it’s intriguing how the use of animation both confuses and heightens the sense of what’s being represented here. There are a couple of references to people going through momentous events as if in a film – to keep their emotional distance – and Folman exploits that concept quite slyly here. There’s a lot of humour and artful audience-tweaking in the mix too, but when it switches to live action for the final few shots, any sense of protective distance falls away. It’s a good film, although it feels more like one of cinema’s numerous one-shot wonders than the start of a major career for its director.

Un conte de Noel (Arnaud Desplechin)

Desplechin’s Kings and Queen is one of my favorite films of recent years – an amazing tumble of characters and ideas and allusions, with a hugely sophisticated sense of behavioural complexity. I later went back and watched the director’s earlier Esther Kahn, a very strange but perhaps waywardly brilliant English-language piece about a turn-of-the-century actress. I would love to see Desplechin’s other films, but I don’t think anything else is readily available for now. The new film is almost as enthralling as Kings and Queen. Like 35 rhums, the raw elements are deceptively familiar – one of those grand family dramas in which old resentments, passions, secrets and so on play themselves out over Christmas. The most immediate crisis is the mother’s leukemia, for which she must find a bone marrow donor within the family (she’s played by Catherine Deneuve; the fine cast also includes Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos), and yet in the film’s scheme, almost as significant is the doubling with her first-born child, who died decades earlier at the age of 6. The sense is that this threw off the family’s equilibrium forever, leaving it in constant scramble to make sense of itself, and the film orchestrates a dizzying, often knowingly theatrical, but precisely conceived tapestry of highs and lows. This being a French film, there’s an immense pragmatism to many of the attitudes (watching it in the immediate wake of the week of Sarah Palin just makes you think again how little sense of possibility so many Americans have, for all their land-of-the-free rhetoric). Who among us, comes the question near the end, can take life and its experiences seriously, and the film might be viewed as a multi-faceted reverie on attaining a bearable lightness of being (to lift a concept Desplechin, in one of the interviews on the Kings and Queen DVD, applied to that film’s protagonist). Overall, this is a very fine film.

The Girl from Monaco (Anne Fontaine)

I’ve written here in the past that Fontaine seems capable of major work – her last film Nouvelle Chance was completely delightful and gracefully meaningful. But she’s another director with very little exposure beyond the film festival. Her new work – selected as a festival gala - might have a shot at greater exposure, although ironically it’s certainly the least interesting of those I’ve seen. A doughy, emotionally rather repressed criminal lawyer, in Monaco for a big trial, falls for a dizzy TV weather girl who rapidly messes up his head; and by the way, his taciturn bodyguard is her former lover. The movie is fun to watch but never seems even remotely plausible; it’s one of those films the flimsiness of which gets you mulling on issues such as how the guy manages to prepare for and perform in court every day when he’s spending entire nights dancing and boozing and making whoopee. Louise Bourgoin, as the danger woman (in a part reportedly drawing on her own French TV presence), is diverting, but hardly groundbreaking – the notion of female directors redeeming characters who might appear merely slutty in coarser hands has been well covered now. And although the ending is much darker than you’d ever see in a Hollywood treatment of this material, it’s also pretty arbitrary. On the whole, after the banquet of Denis’ and Desplechin’s films, this is like snacking on a cookie.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

January movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2006)

Terrence Malick’s The New World will probably end up as one of my favourite releases of 2006. His telling of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas is simply ravishing, and it’s utterly surprising and bracing for virtually every single minute. It’s not just that Malick rejects the usual norms of narrative and editing – it’s as if he’s never known them, and intuitively replaces mainstream conventions with a sense of intense romanticism that spans time and space and inner and outer states. So a single cut might as easily link two months as the instant that connects two glances; the tumblings in one’s head might be as vivid as what is spoken; the logic of an emotional contrast might supercede any interest in explaining how A turned into B. This makes the movie difficult at times, but overall it provides you the consistent thrill of submitting to a simply breathtaking sensibility. I don’t know about its historical accuracy, but it certainly feels anthropologically fascinating as well. Apparently the DVD version will be around 45 minutes longer – it instantly looms as a necessary future purchase.

Looking for Comedy

Albert Brooks’ Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World lives in that strange Brooks territory – it feels as if he deliberately held the movie back from being all that funny, salting it with an inscrutable dose of the knowingly sub-standard and obvious, while letting in just enough of the good stuff that we know it’s a ploy. Since he’s essentially playing himself here – as a comedian sent on a governmental mission to find out what makes the Muslims laugh - and has lots of material about “his” comedy going down like a lead balloon, there’s undoubtedly some level of meta-commentary to all this, which provides undemanding pleasure. The film’s more serious ambitions, if it really has any (it’s hard to tell) don’t amount to very much at all, and it completely peters out at the end – it plays very much as if a final act was hacked off. I enjoyed it well enough, but it’s definitely one of Brooks’ weaker efforts, and especially disappointing for how there’s the smell of pampered middle age about that weakness.

The controversial film Karla finally received a meager release, by which time all the hand wringing had pretty much petered out. It’s not much of a movie, lacking any distinctive perspective on the material – something that makes its very existence seem, indeed, tawdry and exploitative. On the other hand, it has a peculiar sense of decorum that means that much is implied more than shown, although this sometimes seems more a reflection of a TV movie sensibility than of anything you could call taste. It’s not much fun to watch, and as many have pointed out, would not likely have been worthy of a cinema release at all under normal circumstances.

Woody’s Reinvention

Woody Allen reinvents himself so startlingly in Match Point that it’s easy to overrate the end result. Far from Manhattan or easy laughs, the film is a highly precise, coolly-handled fable of deceit among the British upper classes, with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as the poor boy who marries his way into vast money, and Scarlet Johansson as the struggling actress who tempts him. It’s completely engrossing scene by scene, and Allen’s feel for the milieu is remarkable, even if the attitudes and much of the underlying concepts are somewhat antiquated. The tone falters here and there, and the meditations on chance and destiny are mostly superficial: for all his achievement here, the picture justifies Allen’s angst about not being Fellini or Bergman – his sensibility and instincts just aren’t that complex. Still, I agree with the consensus that it’s his best picture in quite a while, and it’s also the movie to date that best justifies Johansson’s burgeoning iconic status.

Imagine Me and You is a British trifle about a young woman who, while walking down the aisle with her long-time boyfriend, locks eyes with another woman, and instantly falls for her. The film aspires to a Four Weddings and a Funeral-kind of tone, falling way short (it sparks literally no laughs), and it could hardly be more predictable. The inherent timeless appeal of pretty young people in nice settings, and the absence of shrillness or preachiness, carries it along well enough, but it’s hardly necessary. And for all the basic receptiveness to same-sex relationship, the other woman is still presented in an inherently predatory light, and the movie pointedly chooses to end on an image of heterosexual rather than gay fulfillment.

Lajos Koltai’s Fateless is a chilling evocation of one Hungarian boy’s experience in the concentration camps. The film has been called overly familiar, but given the subject matter it’s difficult to disparage even a straightforward work of commemoration. And besides, Fateless does become distinctive and intriguing in its thoughts on how the extreme indoctrination of the camps becomes an alternate reality and, ultimately, even a grotesque alternative happiness: such evil as this renders all moral judgments, all sense of personal identity, utterly distorted.

Computer Blunder

Richard Loncraine’s Firewall has Harrison Ford as a bank officer and tech expert who is forced to embezzle a hundred million dollars from his own bank, by a group of ruthless hi-tech thugs holding his family at gunpoint (a premise which reminded me most immediately of Peter Yates’ The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, although I expect my memory might as easily have gone in at least a hundred different directions). It’s difficult not to admire the conceptual prowess of such genre entries – of course it’s implausible, but the use of ipods and GPS-fitted dog collars and camera phones and suchlike has real narrative panache. Unfortunately, the approach to character, theme, and other matters is much more cursory, rendering this yet another bewilderingly underachieving mainstream film.  Director Loncraine (Richard III) could certainly have done better than this, and although Ford is still an effective centre for this kind of thing, there’s no question he’s slowing down.

The very best film of the month was the re-release after thirty years of Michelangelo Antonioni’s long-absent The Passenger, which played for several weeks at the Carlton after a few showings at the Cinematheque. It comes out on DVD in March, and I’ll write about it later in the year. Oh, and I’d also written an entire article around Eli Roth’s Hostel and James Ivory’s The White Countess. For the first time in seven years of writing in this space, I blundered with my computer files and accidentally erased it (no chance of hi-tech bank hacking from this direction!). I just didn’t have the heart to write any of that stuff out again. But I basically liked them both.