Friday, January 9, 2015

More Christmas movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2008)

The Orphanage is advertised as emanating “from the creators of Pan’s Labyrinth” – it’s “presented by” that film’s director Guillermo del Toro. That was one of the most distinctive and compelling films of the last few years: superbly visualized, expertly constructed, and completely mesmerizing; satisfying both as a muscular adult fairy tale and as a serious minded (if enjoyably lurid) depiction of the fascist psyche.

The Orphanage is also in Spanish, but certainly doesn’t make a comparable impact, not that it ever seems to hold that ambition. This belongs more to the old dark house genre, with a woman coming back to the former orphanage where she spent some of her childhood years. The place is creepy, teeming with dark secrets and traumatic memories, and then her own young son suddenly disappears, more likely a victim of the spirit world than the material one.

The film doesn’t go in for too many modern pyrotechnics, relying on old-fashioned atmosphere and suggestion, for which it’s perhaps been over-praised. It doesn’t really gather much momentum as a psychological study, and isn’t at all thematically distinctive, so after a while it’s all down to seeing how things turn out (like most else in the movie, the ending is fine, not a cop-out but no big deal either). This seems to be the first film by director J. A. Bayona, so we can safely label him as promising…he might turn into another del Toro, or on the other hand might get lost in the old dark house of Hollywood. It’s not very high on the list of film-related mysteries that might occupy us.

I am Legend

I am Legend perhaps has less of that old-fashioned right stuff, but it’s by far the more compelling and for that matter creepier film. Based on the Richard Matheson story previously filmed as The Omega Man, it has Will Smith as perhaps the last unaffected survivor of a viral disaster, left with daytime Manhattan to himself and his faithful dog Sam; at night, he barricades himself in his Washington Square house and hides from the others who made it through, as disgusting mutated vampires.

The movie’s excellently paranoia-bating curtain raiser has Emma Thompson as a scientist smugly announcing a cure for cancer; three years later, it’s this viral tampering that’s brought about the apocalypse. Obviously no more 9-11 generated restraint here; the movie’s most striking sequences, with the city serving as Smith’s personal playground, may represent the all-time greatest filmic example of making the best of a bad situation. Later on the genre wheels start to turn a bit more methodically, but it’s still good stuff. I couldn’t even start to recall all the antecedents that come to mind, although Dawn of the Dead, with its band of survivors holed in the temporary utopia of a suburban shopping mall, is a prominent one.

Smith is absolutely excellent in a mostly solo role, and the dog is one of the all-time memorable screen dogs (and may certainly have the all-time wrenching canine death scene – as a major dog sentimentalist, I don’t feel guilty for throwing out that spoiler). Except for some fake looking lions early on, it superbly deploys digital trickery in support of the grand illusion; like Enchanted, this movie feels like the master of its technology, where it’s often been the other way around.

The Great Debaters

If there’s any fancy digital stuff sneaked into Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, it’s certainly well hidden. This resolutely old-fashioned film has Washington as the coach of a black debating team in 1930’s Texas. After triumphing against virtually every black institution in the country, they make the leap to taking on white opposition, with their eyes on the biggest prize of all: Harvard.

Oprah Winfrey produced The Great Debaters, so you know this is intended as the kind of film that’s good for you. But it actually is. A lot of the storytelling is distinctly run-of-the-mill, but the film is an honorable and handsome memorial for the period when extensive civil disobedience for the cause of black equality was still several decades away; it depicts a lynching and various threatening situations, as well as subtler but pervasive day to day slights and belittlements. I spent a good chunk of it in a state of anger, and a good chunk more getting teary (and sometimes both at once, which I guess would count as hitting the jackpot). Sure, that doesn’t particularly validate the film as top-quality cinema – a few times a year I see a film that plays to a somewhat different set of faculties and this was one of them.

Washington is absurdly charismatic in his own role, but as a director he doesn’t stretch anyone else in the cast too much (fellow Oscar winner Forest Whitaker plays too much to stereotype as a fire-and-brimstone type, although he and Washington do have a good scene together). The movie also doesn’t exhibit much interest in women, an unfortunate mismatch given its overall intentions. I can understand the dismissive reviews it got in numerous quarters – I love the art of cinema, not just motion pictures - and I don’t want to be pious about it, but it makes more sense spending time on The Great Debaters than various objectively better films I could mention. I was going to give examples, but maybe I’ll stop before too much of whatever credibility I have flies out the window.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a piece of cinema for sure, and incidentally exhibits ample interest in women. It also provides a good example of the limitations of The Great Debaters’ conventional recreation. The centre of it is Jean-Dominique Baudry, a former editor of French Elle magazine who was struck down in his early 40’s by “locked-in syndrome,” rendering him unable to communicate except by opening and closing his one good eye. Amazingly, Baudry dictated an entire book in this condition, which was published to acclaim in 1997.

Schnabel’s previous two films were about artists on the fringe, and this film is in effect a tragic extension of that theme: left with little more than his memory and imagination, Baudry’s inner life soars, and the film goes with him. Schnabel makes great use of a subjective camera to depict his inner state (audaciously, the first fifteen minutes or so are entirely shot that way), and constructs the picture around powerful dynamics and contrasts: between current immobility and past exuberance, the stark interiors of the hospital and the intense but fragile freedom of the imagined butterfly.

The film is generally in the triumph-of-the-human-spirit mode – it’s not sugar-coated, but by inclination it spends much less time on Baudry’s pain, and on the monotony of such helplessness. This is reasonable in that the frustrations of his condition can merely be stipulated, but it still limits the film’s overall emotional impact. But the subject matter is extreme and idiosyncratic enough to slip past normal expectations of verisimilitude or comprehensiveness. The film conveys an enormous sense of contentment and inner ventilation, as if Baudry’s unleashed spirit had seeped into every aspect of its making. 

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