Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas movies, part three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2005)

A Very Long Engagement

My favourite movie experience of the holiday season came in New York, where a theatre near Greenwich Village was playing Jacques Demy’s 1971 Donkey Skin. The film is a musical (like Demy’s best known work The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) , a fairy tale about a princess, played by Catherine Deneuve, who must flee her kingdom and work as a scullion, disguised beneath the donkey skin, to find her prince. I loved every minute of it. I won’t spend too much space on a film that can’t readily be seen here, but Demy had a wonderful sensibility: Donkey Skin demonstrates both an utter conviction in the story’s screwy inner logic, and a contemporary awareness (albeit a quirky one) of foibles and complexities. The film suggests he would have had trouble in the digital age - you get the feeling he loved the immediacy of his props and devices (people in simple masks; horses painted red or blue), and it’s an exceptionally earthy and immediate evocation of a magical kingdom. The film also has numerous allusions to Jean Cocteau, placing it in a glorious tradition of involved poetic cinema.

Donkey Skin came to mind several times when I was watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s new film – sadly not as a direct point of comparison but as a measure of what Jeunet’s film lacks. A Very Long Engagement is the follow-up to Amelie, a wildly imaginative, whimsical crowd-pleaser, and one of the archetypal foreign films for people who don’t like foreign films. The new film also stars Audrey Tautou, but it’s a more sombre effort overall. She plays a woman whose beloved is declared killed in World War One, but she doesn’t believe it, and launches her own investigation to obtain certainty. The film weaves together a substantial number of subplots and secondary characters, sometimes using the Amelie approach of shooting off on a tangent; it’s consistently handsome if not beautiful, contrasting a pristine vision of rural France with grimly vivid visions of the trenches.

But I never found any way into the film. I didn’t once feel any of the immediacy and involvement that made Donkey Skin so beguiling. In that film you feel Demy alongside the camera, personally guiding his vision, whereas you get no feeling of Jeunet other than as a disembodied presence, hidden behind layers of computers. The central character is barely defined except by her very determination, and the film takes from her an abstracted sense of sheer momentum. As such it no doubt reflects a self-aggrandizing French fantasy of feminine indomitibility – it touches both the endurance of cultural tentpoles and the transcendence of resourcefulness over institutional stone-walling. None of this is very interesting as a theme though, and for all its assurance, the film only reflects a glossy aesthetic as familiar now in European as in American movies. You might enjoy the movie, but there’s no conceivable reason to watch this rather than any classic work. Donkey Skin is merely the one I had in my mind that day, but then later on I watched Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, which beat the pants off it too.

Red Lights

Cedric Kahn’s unheralded thriller opened in the Carlton on Christmas Eve, which against so much high-profile competition seems like a ticket to oblivion. That’s a shame, because the film is much more involving than most of the American movies currently on show. It stars the unprepossessing Jean-Pierre Darroussin as an insurance middle manager on a road trip with his higher-achieving wife (Carole Bouquet). He’s drinking wildly, picking fights with her; as night falls and his recklessness increases the point-of-view shots of the road are already edge-of-the-seat tense. When he stops at a bar she takes off, leaving him a note that she’s taking the train; he picks up a passenger, and the suspense escalates.

The film ultimately ties its various strands together, in a way that might be regarded as a vindication of the put-upon male; Bouquet’s metaphorical wings are distinctly clipped, and the final sequence sees Darroussin in control, his chaotic mental state having resulted in a display of potency that magically pays off for him. But this can also be read as a displaced fantasy, a bucolic sun-baked dream of redemption contrasting with the precisely life-defining and –diminishing architecture that plays under the opening credits. The movie weaves in some semi-fantastic encounters reminiscent of David Lynch, along with some bourgeois squirming worthy of Chabrol. I haven’t seen any of Kahn’s previous work, and one could wish for Red Lights to go a little further, but it’s enough to mark him as yet another more than promising European filmmaker.

In Good Company

Another tale of male self-actualization, Paul Weitz’s gentle comedy is an easy pleasure. Dennis Quaid plays a 52-year-old advertising executive who after a corporate takeover suddenly finds himself reporting to a hotshot 26-year-old, played by Topher Grace. Further, his wife is pregnant, financial challenges are piling up, and then Grace starts dating Quaid’s daughter (Scarlett Johansson). It’s a mellow movie, mostly conventional in its approach to characterization and mood and pacing, but it benefits tremendously from the actors. Grace gives an outstandingly off-kilter performance, and after this and p.s. seems like a major prospect (the only question is whether enough scripts exist to accommodate him). Quaid is nuanced and incredibly interesting  (see comments on Flight of the Phoenix last week).

The film takes a conventional populist approach towards business, relentlessly mocking and exposing the heartlessness of the new media synergy-obsessed paradigm and its trappings, and holding up the old-fashioned virtues of honest transactions based on things that matter. Coming from a Hollywood studio this seems suspect, but the ultimate trajectory of the characters is surprisingly graceful (each moves along the spectrum of self-awareness without necessarily ending up exactly where you’d expect), and earns the movie considerable goodwill. Weitz also made American Pie and About a Boy and seems to be following a graceful ascent both of subtlety and substance.

Meet the Fockers

Jay Roach’s sequel to his 2000 hit Meet the Parents has quite a bit less comic invention, and makes very little sense as a whole, but coasts along thanks to a dream cast – or at least it would have been a dream cast circa 1976 – Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand, in her first film since 1981 that she didn’t also direct. She’s extremely natural and earthy and appealing here, confirming my thesis that through over-deliberation she’s long been her own worst enemy, cinematically speaking. Hoffman is also surprisingly light and peppy, whereas as for de Niro...well, I’ve long given up trying to understand what makes him tick. See him hosting Saturday Night Live recently, for the second time? Singing with Kermit the frog, dressing up as an old woman, delivering a bunch of “Islamic terrorist” names that sound like toilet jokes...he looked miserable and out of it (was there ever a host so dependent on his cue cards?) but there he was anyway. No wonder Scorsese doesn’t use him any more. Anyway, back to Meet the Fockers – given the cast, much of it resembles a loose “hanging out” kind of feeling, which is enough to get by.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Doing it my way

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2009)

I had “Family Day” off, but my wife didn’t, so I devoted most of the day to watching Abel Gance’s 1921 silent epic La Roue. I’d recorded it from Turner Classic Movies months ago, and had been saving it for exactly such an occasion, because it lasts over four hours. I started around nine thirty and finished some seven hours later, having taken breaks to walk the dog, make lunch, answer emails, and do whatever else popped into my head. It was a great day. The film, built around a railroad engineer who falls in love with his own adopted daughter, is often dazzling, although of course a lot of it is hard to relate to now, other than as a record of a vanished cultural time. It refuses to end, adding one climactic embellishment upon another, but you sense that as a sign of Gance’s massively inventive delight in a then still relatively new medium.

Watching movies

Some people (see David Bordwell’s website as a wonderful example) love to track the development of the medium as we know it, scrutinizing cinema’s earliest surviving works for examples of shot-reverse shots, camera movements, or emerging psychological complexity. I admire that scholarship but it’s not really where my own heart lies; I suppose I’m sloppier in my appreciation. The very approach I took to watching La Roue, forcing it to coexist with the day’s other logistics and whims, probably rules me out as a serious spectator. Fair enough – we all do the best we can.

Actually, most films I watch at home don’t even get that good a deal: typically I’ll start watching a movie one evening, spend 45 minutes or an hour on it, maybe finish it a couple of days later, start right away on another one. A lot of people tell me they couldn’t watch films that way, and I’m not saying it’s ideal (to state only the most obvious reservation, it does increase the likelihood of getting confused about basic plot and character points), but if I only watched movies when I had two interrupted hours available, my consumption would plummet. So I proceed (as with various other things in life actually) on the premise that pragmatic forward progress beats waiting around for an unattainable ideal.

Recently though I’m finding that this fragmented kind of viewing, rather than being a necessary accommodation, is actually tending to become my preferred mode of movie watching. I’m just getting used to doing it that way. This intersects with other things. I love film just as much, but I’m progressively erecting a higher and higher bar regarding what I actually pay to see at the theaters. This year I’ve just gone once a week on average, which I know far outpaces the average viewer, but in the past it’s often been more like three or four times a week. Movies that would easily have made my viewing cut even twelve months ago (Last Chance Harvey, The International, The Necessities of Life) now don’t even strike me as next-year cable catch-ups.

Watching Che

It’s easy to be seduced by the artful marketing, and by all the reporting of the weekend box office results as serious “news”, into thinking Taken or He’s just not that into you are cultural events of some kind (rather than straightforward, calculated commercial products, like new cookie flavours or rebranded toilet paper); I’m certainly susceptible to being seduced myself. But I think I’ve reached a tipping point now, because the history of cinema is so deep and so rich, and (to my immense delight!) I have so much of it right here on my shelves, or available through the digital package, that it virtually always calls out louder than the passing appeal of the current new fad.

Added to that, movie theaters are too often annoying (the only locations where the saying ‘hell is other people’ regularly pops back into my head) and then, like everyone else, I’m into spending less anyway. And we moved to a new condo, and I really like hanging out here. And our old dog appreciates our company more and more. See what a hopeless case this is turning into?

So Steven Soderbergh’s Che posed a particular challenge to me. It’s almost four and a half hours along, conceived as a two-part film with a fifteen minute intermission. It was first shown at Cannes last year, where it got a mixed response, although Benicio del Toro as Che Guevara did win the award for best actor there. Some predicted it would never be seen again in that form, but it played New York and LA at the end of last year in a so-called “roadshow” engagement, before being generally released elsewhere as two separate films. I’d assumed Toronto would also get the part one/part two treatment, but then the Yonge/Dundas AMC came up with the full deal.

On to next week

I have no doubt Soderbergh would rather his film be viewed as a single entity. But frankly, that prospect depressed me. And my wife, who was coming with me, didn’t want to do it either; this, of course, is the bottom line on many issues. So we ended up going to the 1.30 show, staying until intermission and then leaving (we went to eat at the Osteria near Yonge and Queen, where Terroni’s used to be, which I entirely recommend; then we spent a quiet evening at home). As I write this, the following day, our plan is to return next week for the second half. Obviously this isn’t the most economical way of dealing with it, given that the AMC charged somewhat more than they do for a normal movie, but I didn’t say every decision we make is about the economics.

Anyway, I’ll let you know next week how part one takes on a different aspect in the light of part two (if, of course, I still remember anything about part one after the intervening week…no, I’m joking). On its own terms, the film is interesting, but much less radical or challenging as basic film-making than as commercial challenge. It focuses on the Cuban revolutionary years, as Guevara and Castro and an initially tiny band of rebels gradually grow in numbers and sophistication, culminating of course in overthrowing the Battista government. Soderbergh intercuts this with Che’s trip to New York in 1964, as a senior government representative now, to address the United Nations.

It’s all interesting, but mostly in a straightforward procedural kind of way; there’s very little insight into the man or his times, and nothing that strikes you as innovative cinema (let alone to a degree reflecting Che’s revolutionary ambitions). Maybe I’ll change my mind, but for now, I think I can handle this movie my own way.

(But then I went back the following week, and I did change my mind…)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Embarrassment of riches?

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2004)
On May 28th, 11 films opened commercially in Toronto, which I’d categorize as a mixed blessing. The Day after Tomorrow, Soul Plane and Raising Helen could take care of themselves, but the others were all niche pictures, and I seriously doubt you can tend to that many niches all at once. Some of the films had at least had their trailers playing regularly over the preceding month or more, but to the best of my knowledge Love Me if you Dare, for instance, just appeared out of nowhere. That weekend I went to see the four films dealt with below (I’d already seen, and written about, Young Adam at last year’s film festival), and the audiences were meagre in each case. But I know that even at this pace, many fine films remain unreleased here (just look at The New York Times’ listings on any given weekend), and I’m intensely grateful for places like the Carlton and Canada Square and the Cumberland. I just fear for their future, if the commercial releasing machine continues to treat its materials so haphazardly. During the film festival, we consistently sell out 9 am showings of crappy movies that no one’s ever heard of. Couldn’t we do slightly better at translating that commitment to the rest of the year?
Alexandra’s Project
Australian director Rolf de Heer’s project shows how an unhappy wife turns the tables on her self-regarding husband: on his birthday, arriving home expecting a surprise party, he finds himself alone and locked in, with only a video tape for company. Initially it looks like a titillating gag, but we know better – the only question is how bad it’s going to get. It’s essentially a two-handed film, with the additional handicap that the two actors barely appear in the same room, but it’s effectively creepy. And although de Heer may not quite be the David Mamet of Oleanna, he does a fair job of sewing ambiguity about which of the two is most unsympathetic – the root cause is certainly the husband’s complacency, but the movie establishes pretty clearly that he’s an Australian archetype, and her revenge may well seem disproportionate. It’s the kind of movie that will drive some to feel they need a bath, while leaving others more productively musing on the perils of sexuality. The ultimate neatness of the resolution, unfortunately, tends to emphasize the film’s contrivances over its politics.
This Irish tale of multiple overlapping storylines might almost be trying to be an Irish Pulp Fiction – it has the low life glamour, the shifts of perspective, the eruptions of violence, the colourful profanity – but seems oddly muted and lacking in real commitment (it might be a sad comment on how sleazy this urban genre has lately become that Intermission seems disconcertingly mild at times). Some of the strands – such as the self-mythologizing cop being trailed around by a director of fluffy TV shows who’s looking to expand into tougher material – are entirely bewildering; others have a real sweetness, but of a very familiar kind. Colin Farrell is the best-known cast member, but his presence doesn’t provide much of a lift. It’s always entertaining, but that’s more a matter of momentum than anything else – the fact that it concludes on a note of childish payback seems like the final evidence of its shallow purpose.
Jeux d’enfants
Released here as Love Me if you Dare, this French film by Yann Samuel is being marketed as a romantic Amelie clone (on the Internet Movie Database you can find a bizarre message board argument about whether or not the two films were directed by the same person). The premise sounds romantic enough: a boy and girl fall into a never ending game of ever-increasing dares, and of course their escalating attempts to humiliate each other hide their intense mutual attraction. The movie acknowledges early on that there’s a perversity to how they stick with this project, and that’s putting it mildly – by any rational standard, we’re watching two sick people engaged in monstrously sado-masochistic displacement. If you doubt this, wait for the ending, which I won’t reveal here, but which could well make you vomit and swoon simultaneously. This all surely drastically undermines the movie’s popcorn credentials, and although the picture has visual panache, it’s more sporadic in this regard than Amelie was. The leads Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard (who played Billy Crudup’s wife in Big Fish) are also slightly nondescript. On the whole though, if Jeux d’enfants were an entry in David Letterman’s “Is That Anything?” segment, I would have to declare with some confidence that it’s certainly, uh, something. 
Crimson Gold
The strongest of the four films dealt with here, Jafar Panahi’s Iranian film (written by Abbas Kiarostami) starts with a pizza delivery man shooting himself dead in the wake of a jewelry store robbery gone wrong, and then shows some of the events that brought him there. Several writers compared the film to Taxi Driver, and others evoked film noir more generally. These echoes (I don’t know whether they’re conscious influences) are there for sure in the detailed portrayal of a troubled psyche (a war veteran, bloated and seemingly slowed down from the effects of the medication he’s taking for an unspecified injury) slowly drowning in an urban landscape. But this is a specifically Iranian film, crafting a devastating portrayal of how that evolving society shuts out the figures on the margins. The streets of Tehran, as seen here, are crowded and unprepossessing, but behind the walls the film shows substantial wealth, and an increasing tolerant secularism (going hand in hand with Western-style neurosis) in personal behaviour.
The deliveryman’s exclusion from this circle – symbolized in particular by the jeweler’s condescension – sets the stage for his disintegration, but it’s not a simple matter of class hatred. The film’s at pains to show how he’s treated sympathetically at most stops, and thus attains a power beyond polemic, showing how subtle evolutions in the social fabric generate winners and losers with an inevitability that’s beyond easy solutions. Perhaps the film’s most disconcerting facet is the character’s stillness and fatalist stolidity, as if he knew his fate (just as the audience does from the first scene) and was just waiting to see how he’ll get there. It’s in this sense that the comparison to film noir seems most astute, although – in another of the film’s fascinating strands – Crimson Gold’s illustration of the country’s attitudes towards women suggests some distance to go until the attainment of a Stanwyck or Joan Crawford, or even a Marion Cotillard. On the whole, Panahi’s film is yet another highpoint in Iranian cinema’s incredible 15-year run.

Although I guess three out of four of those reviews might be termed “mixed,” readers will probably have realized by now that I’ll put constructively engaged disagreement ahead of easy approval any day. So I’d call that a great movie weekend. And I didn’t even see The Rage in Placid Lake or Superstar in a Housedress or Goldilocks.

Friday, December 5, 2014

My favourite rat

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2007)

I think I might have enjoyed Brad Bird’s Ratatouille more than any other movie so far this year. And even though it’s a G-rated animated feature from the Disney/Pixar label, I don’t think it’s that it appealed to the “child in me.” Well, I guess we could attribute all capacity for spontaneous delight to some inner juvenile, but my pleasure in the film felt completely mature. People often say that movies like Shrek are “really for adults,” and my reaction is always to wonder then who, say, Ingmar Bergman can possibly be for. Extra-terrestrials I guess. But it shows you how lame the notion of mature entertainment has become, that people are so turned on by glib references to popular culture, as if this served to illuminate (much less to critique) anything at all.


I don’t think Ratatouille has a single glib reference to popular culture, and the film’s miracle is in creating an entertainment that seems to me (although I can’t analyze the pre-teen perspective on this) massively, torrentially accessible, while radiating constant artistic integrity. It’s the story of a French rat, Remy, who while the rest of the pack scrounges in the garbage, develops a passion for gourmet cooking. Circumstances take him to the kitchen of a premiere French restaurant, where he teams up with a kitchen boy to prepare unprecedented meals – the rat supplies the know-how, the boy supplies the hands. But human prejudice against rats (especially in kitchens) prevents Remy from getting the acclaim he deserves, and the malign forces of commercialization, and lousy packaged food, loom large as well.

I don’t know how persuasive such a plot summary will be. Let me just say that Ratatouille is a staggering visual achievement, sending its unconstrained camera on journeys of impossibly intricate choreography – from the depths of sewers out to the glories of Paris in one mesmerizing journey, or through the frantic perils of a busy kitchen from a rat’s eye view. The animation of the human characters is sophisticatedly stylized, whereas Remy is simply one of the all-time triumphs of anthropomorphism – immensely sympathetic, but always very plainly a rat. The movie orchestrates familiar, comforting cycles of highs and lows, but it avoids cheap gags, and it’s always as much of a pleasure to listen to as to watch (by the way, there are no goofy songs either).

And most of all, apart from doing a stellar job of promoting the merits of good, natural food, it’s transcendent in its insistence that artistic achievement can spring from the least likely of sources – a validation provided through a sour food critic voiced by Peter O’Toole (giving, for my money, a more Oscar-worthy performance than he did in Venus). In this regard, Ratatouille is a perfect marriage of form and content – for doubters like me, it’s not quite as miraculous as a dreamy meal cooked up by a rodent, but it’s in the ballpark.


George Ratliff’s Joshua works on the opposite premise, to convince us that malign intent, or outright evil, can also exist where we least expect it. Unless that is we’ve seen The Omen series or Birth or the other movies that tune us into the perils of soft-spoken dark-haired boys. Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga play well-to-do Manhattan parents of such a boy, and a new baby girl, whose arrival triggers all kinds of escalating trauma

There’s nothing overtly supernatural about the premise, which of course makes it even more unsettling – it’s a cautionary tale in the perils of a slight maladjustment in a mostly exemplary nurturing process. I don’t have kids and I still found it pretty unsettling – parents of anything less than fortress-like self-confidence might not sleep afterwards. The movie’s especially wicked in fingering females – from old to very very young – as the key sources of imbalance. The movie doesn’t try to move much beyond its genre, but certainly suggests that Ratliff (formerly known as a documentarian) could pull off some pretty subtle work.

A Mighty Heart is Michael Winterbottom’s telling of the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who disappeared in Pakistan in 2002, on the way to a perilous interview with a Taliban activist: he was ultimately beheaded. Mariane, his strong, sympathetic wife (who was pregnant at the time) is played here by Angelina Jolie, which has inevitably dominated the coverage of the film; her performance is noble and astute and need be neither raved over nor condescended to.

The film is primarily interesting for Winterbottom’s customary facility in conveying the guts of a complex situation – it seems convincing on the chaos of Pakistan, both socially and politically, and it feels like it’s giving us a reasonable approximation of the complexity of the search for Pearl, with all sorts of interests and leads and concerns tumbling over each other. It’s a pretty neutral work of reconstruction, staying away from the big politics, and ends up feeling satisfying but minor. As such it’s typical of Winterbottom, whose energy and resourcefulness are consistently more academically interesting than actually exciting and engaging. His film leaves you feeling sad and well informed, but somehow yields virtually nothing to talk over afterwards.

You Kill Me

John Dahl’s You Kill Me is a trivial concoction about an alcoholic New Jersey hitman who is sent to San Francisco to get his act together. The star Ben Kingsley bragged in an interview about how the cast and director took pride in finding a unique approach to every scene, but the mild resulting quirkiness can’t overcome the broader familiarity. If we believe Hollywood, hitman is second only to cop as a flourishing career choice, and the associated well of studied incongruity is plain dry. Despite some good performances (including Tea Leoni as a highly attractive and capable-seeming woman who, for no good reason whatsoever, falls for the taciturn killer), there’s zero reason for this movie to exist.  

Lars von Trier’s The Boss of it All is a comedy about a corporate owner who’s long hidden his identity, posing as just another manager – when he wants to sell the company, he must hire an actor to play the part of big boss. Von Trier provides an occasional voice-over to insist on the dispensable nature of what we’re watching, and the movie is certainly lightweight – it’s shot in a technique called “Automavision” which apparently limited the director’s control over the camera. As always, he’s a smoother artist than he likes to pretend, so the movie is a pretty good satire of corporate attitudes (not that another one was really necessary) and, more lumberingly, of the pretensions of art. I also note it’s the kind of movie in which a senior female employee has sex with the “boss” within a day of meeting him, just to prove a point. Maybe that’s satire, or maybe certain aspects of von Trier’s worldview run on Auto too.