Thursday, February 26, 2015

December movies, part two

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2005)

Ballets Russes is a documentary about the performing institution that popularized ballet in America from the 30’s to the 50’s, told through some wonderful archival footage and many interviews with the principal dancers (many of whom happily survived at least until recently), including a 2000 reunion. I am not any kind of ballet fan, but the film has great material – behind the scenes clashes, breakups, wartime turmoil, adventures in Hollywood, and so forth, and it’s so engaging that it’s only afterwards that its limitations really occur to you. For example, the old footage is seen (perhaps out of necessity) only in fragments, concentrating far more on providing glimpses of key figures than on illustrating technique, form or overall shape – our sense of the company’s artistry emerges in the telling much more than in the showing. There’s an intriguing social history there, of the popularization of the cultural form, but this too seems secondary to the film’s celebratory purpose and must be constructed in bits and pieces. And the brief anecdote of the company’s first black ballerina, who aroused such hostility in the South (including a backstage Klan visit) that she eventually had to leave the company, only points up the absence of such weight elsewhere in the film. To a certain (likely the larger) section of the audience, all of this will of course not matter at all, and as I say, it didn’t matter that much to me either as I watched it. The personalities are terrific, and if the movie’s techniques are conventional, they’re executed with much grace.


Three…Extremes is made up of three squirm-inducing stories directed by Park Chan-wook (Old Boy), Takashi Miike (mainstay of the film festival’s Midnight Madness section) and Fruit Chan. The first, by Chan, is called Dumplings – place your bets for what they’re made of. The second, by Park (a director whose work I’ve yet to warm to, despite the Tarantino-led accolades), is about a film director terrorized by an extra, and Miike’s third is the most dream-like and intriguing, as well as probably the cleverest. Like most compilation movies, the cumulative impact is relatively limited – no matter how well crafted the episodes are, they’re pretty much confined to putting across the premise and then getting off the stage. But variations across all three segments on the themes of self-disgust and macabre family dynamics lend it a broad feeling of coherence, and obviously it’s never dull.

By the way, I watched Ballets Russes and Three…Extremes on the same Sunday afternoon. Isn’t diversity a great thing?

I didn’t much enjoy the stage production of The Producers when I saw it in Toronto a couple of years ago, although many said it was hampered by weak casting of the two leads. There’s no question it felt dead at the centre, although it was difficult to imagine how high the tacky material could ever be elevated. The new film version, directed by Susan Stroman (who was also at the helm for the theatre – this is her first film), confirms all these doubts. Like the film of Rent, the movie suffers from woefully inadequate strategizing on what a meaningful cinematic version might actually consist of, but it’s not as facile as Rent in (to some degree) covering that up with superficial energy and glitz. The early scene where Nathan Lane’s crooked producer meets Matthew Broderick’s buttoned-down accountant and quickly starts to lead him astray is shockingly drab and lifeless (that stuff about the blue blanket is surpassingly lame), plunging the movie right into the hole.

It’s A Flop!

The main casting innovation, Uma Thurman as the Swedish bimbo actress, similarly strikes out – Thurman simply can’t lower herself into this with sufficient conviction (the only mystery is why she felt inclined to try). The less estimable performers do better. Will Ferrell’s genetic predisposition to shtick works fine here, and I must admit to getting my biggest laughs out of Gary Beach (who won a Tony for this) as the outrageously camp director, particularly during the Springtime for Hitler routine, which all these years later remains pretty surefire. But these are slim pickings indeed. My mind wandered to other musicals, not to the likes of Minnelli or Donen (which would be not so much wandering as inter-galactic leaping) but rather – I admit oddly – to Michael Ritchie’s filming of another Broadway mainstay, The Fantasticks. Ritchie’s movie was panned and never properly released, although I caught it once on late night TV. That one’s a choppy and often threadbare film (the Internet movie database has a long list of scenes that were cut from it), but it has some moments of beauty, perhaps all the sweeter for their obviously problematic context. It feels like a movie someone at least cared about making.

Thomas Bezucha’s The Family Stone is ultimately a little disappointing as only a very good film can be – it’s so very smart and accomplished that you’re frustrated at its failure to be a masterpiece. The elements of that failure are pretty clear. The film is about Christmas at a rambunctious liberal family, where the eldest son (Dermot Mulroney) brings home his girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker) for the first time; they’re loose and liberal; she’s neurotic and uptight…a disaster looms. The cast includes Diane Keaton, Claire Danes and Rachel McAdams, all excellent. I haven’t smiled or chuckled as much in any film this year (no laughs out loud though), and the sentiment got to me too. And a dinner scene where Parker puts her foot in her mouth all the way up to her thigh is just about the squirmiest thing I’ve seen all year, including those giant insects in King Kong.

Turbulent Blessings

And yet…even that fine scene seems a little contrived and overwritten, pushing Parker’s ineptitude way beyond the point where someone in her situation would have figured it out and shut it down (or else had someone step in to shut it down for her). The film ultimately succumbs to an extreme desire for tidiness, arranging for several unlikely and under-dramatized character pairings, and tacking on a sentimental one-year-later epilogue. And it doesn’t really have much to say about anything at all, except the same old stuff about the turbulent blessings of family. I thought as a counterpoint of one of my favourite films of the year, Agnes Jaoui’s Comme une image (Look At Me), which was similarly well-constructed and accessible and pleasant and unobtrusive in its style, but which (like Jaoui’s previous film The Taste Of Others) seemed continually philosophical and probing about the interaction of the social and the personal. Even Jaoui’s titles are beautifully resonant in a way that The Family Stone just isn’t. I see that I’ve laid out the film’s faults in much more detail than its virtues, but that’s my own evocation of family for you – always playing up the negative.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

December movies, part one

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2005)

Ushpizin (The Guests) is an Israeli movie, directed by Giddi Dar. It’s a tightly knit tale of faith and tradition, built around a familiar structure of a disruptive guest; in this case two escaped convicts who turn up at the house of a former wastrel now turned (fallibly) devout, on the eve of a sacred festival. The film could have been almost unbearably self-righteous and stuffy, and sometimes shows signs of heading that way; it’s governed largely by idealism. But it’s truly deeply felt, and it accumulates a lushly earthy feeling (one has to admire any picture in which the climactic eating of a lemon carries a real emotional clout). The central character is a far more subtle creation than he initially appears, and the milieu is skillfully enough conveyed that even a distinctly secular viewer might be persuaded by the construct of God as participating equally in the action with the human characters. And as with many such films, I can’t help but cite the anthropological interest as a major attraction in itself. It’s a trite thing to say, but it’s all an education.

Karen Kusama hasn’t made a film since her promising debut Girlfight, and Aeon Flux is a surprising return vehicle – a big budget science fiction thriller with Charlize Theron; it’s set in the last city on 25th century Earth, and she’s a rebel going up against the stifling leadership (it’s quite similar in many ways to the recent The Island). The film received attention mainly for canceling its press screenings – a notorious sign of a panicking studio – and indeed it's not very good; it’s monotonous, with poorly handled action sequences. Beyond the images of Theron in her skin-tight costumes, it blows any possibility of being a modern-day Modesty Blaise or Barbarella – it’s full of gimmicky stylistic ideas, but they don’t cohere into anything interesting, I suppose an action film reflecting a feminine sensibility is still a relatively rare item – the general tone here is much more nurturing, empathetic, and plain soft than you’ll get from most action packages, but in this context that seems as much a sign of resignation as subversion.

Good Night, and Good Luck became the only second movie this year that pulled me to a quick second visit (2046 was the first). It again struck me as impeccable in virtually every respect (although I'll admit that the second visit didn’t yield the additional layerings that one expects from the greatest of films). If there were an Oscar for overall contribution, George Clooney would surely be the winner for this year. On the one hand, Syriana communicates the corruption and bastardized idealism underlying global politics; knowingly complicated and sometimes impenetrable, it barely allows the faintest scope for optimism. Meanwhile, the Ed Murrow movie looks back fifty years, excavating some of the roots of our craven capitulation – our willingness to submit to easy gratification and insulation – and imprinting a profound sense of loss, but not without a romantic wistfulness that may leave the viewer with at least a fleeting sense of determination.

I can name only a handful of moments in Good Night, and Good Luck that I'd possibly want to change. One of those is the scene of Murrow asking the young Liberace (in real archival footage) if he hopes to get married one day, and the pianist’s carefully worded response about hoping to find “the right mate. “ Compared to the film’s overall subtleties it seems like an easy laugh, although even this has its place in establishing the era’s hypocrisy and repressiveness in personal matters, and thus in diluting any possibility of reading the movie as being largely unfiltered nostalgia.

The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has been closely pre-scrutinized in some circles, not because anyone needs another big-budget fantasy blockbuster, but for its adherence to the Christian subtext of C. S. Lewis’ source novel (which I haven’t read); if you don’t know, it’s about four children who tumble through a magical wardrobe into a wondrous realm of talking animals and strange creatures, where they are quickly greeted as the instruments of a prophecy that will defeat the evil ruling the land. As directed by Andrew Adamson (Shrek) it’s a very smooth creation with an even-handed and matter-of-fact tone, effortlessly blending the real and the digital: you suspend your own disbelief as effortlessly as the children do (for example, they adapt to the Cockney beavers within a couple of minutes). So what about that big issue? Well, sure, the subtext is there if you want it, and to my inexpert sensibility it seems pretty respectful. In particular, when the lion Aslan sacrifices himself for the forces of good and is later reborn, that’s kind of reminiscent of…well, you know. What the actual value of that recognition is, well, that’s beyond me. Maybe it’s just about reinforcement through repetition (I guess it’s also pretty exciting when the face of Jesus shows up on a potato chip). Although what big budget fantasy epic doesn’t lay on the higher power backdrop – from Star Wars’ Force through the Matrix and so on…

The film is too restrained, and in truth its young actors are a little too inexpert, for the themes of good and evil to carry much visceral weight. And the eagerness of the inhabitants of Narnia to idolize their human visitors seemed to me as plausible an allegory for an unelected monarchy as for anything less earthly. No matter. It’s a colourful, engaging, thankfully unportentous film.

If the chatter at my office is anything to go by, Memoirs of a Geisha, rather than Narnia or King Kong, was the season’s most anticipated release – looks like a lot of people (and yes, I mean women) loved that book. I haven’t read it, but I’m confident it would never have caught on as it did if it had been as affectless as Rob Marshall’s movie. Marshall seems at home with the easy spectacle, although even then his approach is conventional.  But he seems to hold his fine lead actors at arm’s length (Gong Li in particular seems game for something much more full-blooded) – not helped by the ill-fated decision to avoid subtitles and use English dialogue. The movie is overly discreet about the nature of being a geisha – one could easily come away with the impression that the requirement is to have sex just one time in a career, and to spend the rest of the time tiptoeing around serving tea. The portrayal of the protagonist’s decline during the war is rushed, robbing the thing of any overall dramatic shape. And her great romance – with a much older man she first meets at the age of 9 – merely seems creepy and distasteful. The movie has reasonable craft, but lousy instincts.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Best of 2005

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2005)

Several of my very favourite commercial releases this year barely qualify as that – they played at the 2004 film festival and then at the Cinematheque. And Head-On played only one or two nights at the Goethe Institute, before making a low-key one-week return later on. Still, you take your movies where you can. Apologies to any masterpieces released right at the end of the year. Here’s the list.

The World (Jia Zhang-ke)
This was my introduction to the work of Chinese auteur Jia - I didn’t see his acclaimed film Platform until later. The World - focusing on a young boyfriend and girlfriend, both working in a Beijing theme park filled with scaled-down replicas of world landmarks - is an engrossing work, illustrating a China in transition, touching on its persistent poverty (especially rurally), its abiding mystery and its banality. It’s a melancholy film, but it’s also filled with humour and incident and is a continuously fascinating work of anthropology – it’s particularly attuned toward women and the forces that drive them toward merely superficial advancement, ornamentation or even prostitution.

Cafe Lumiere (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
What a pleasure that CafĂ© Lumiere (dedicated to Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu) is the most narratively accessible of the Hou films I’ve seen. It follows a young woman, three months pregnant and just back from Taiwan, as she criss-crosses Tokyo, visiting parents or friends, working on a research project, but most often simply seen in transit. Both thematically and in its technique, the film seems to be about self-definition and its contingencies and choices. This subject might have entailed Hou’s most diverse, ambitious canvas yet, but he responds instead by honing down to his simplest, purest film.

Moolaade (Ousmane Sembene)
It’s amazing that this year brought a new film by Sembene, the pioneer of African cinema. His astonishing Moolaade, if it turns out to be his last film, will stand as a triumphant summation of his career. It’s simple in its technique, with the unadorned clarity and straightforward quality of a children’s story (although its subject is genital mutilation), but it exposes both the beauty and brutality of Africa with powerful eloquence.

Comme Une Image (Agnes Jaoui)
Jaoui’s follow-up to The Taste of Others revolves around an essentially monstrous author and publisher and a group of characters whose spiritual health lies in the distance they manage to put between themselves and him. The film understands that such monsters are created as much by the structures around them as by rampant pathology; the title suggests how identity is as much social as personal. The film always stays in familiar, easily assimilated territory, it’s unobtrusive in its style and acted in a pleasant register, but it’s entirely scintillating, examining in surprising detail a range of shifting tastes and possibilities.

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai)
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. This was the only film this year that I felt demanded an almost immediate second viewing.

Junebug (Phil Morrison)
This is a low budget film about a North Carolina family when 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 prevailing complacency, and a great achievement by the unknown Morrison.

Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney)
I loved George Clooney’s highly disciplined account of how CBS News took on Joseph McCarthy in the 1950’s. The impeccably controlled David Straithairn is mesmerizing as Murrow, and despite the film’s stripped down air – it focuses almost entirely on work processes (flawlessly fusing new and found footage), runs only an hour and a half and seldom moves outside the newsroom or a few other bland interiors – it’s distinctly romantic and even subtly mystic. Between this and the gloomier Syriana, Clooney certainly deserves some kind of recognition for the year’s most striking overall contribution.

Head-On (Fatih Akin)
This is a fascinating, often fiery movie about the marriage and love affair (in that order) of two German Turks. It initially seems almost like a distended commentary on the impossibility of transcending one’s roots, but works an unpredictable way toward a universal poignancy that almost evokes Casablanca; sometimes it seems too simplistic in how it lays out various tensions for our examination, but few films have such constant feisty variation and vigour.

Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch)
This laconic tale 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 Family Stone (Thomas Bezucha)
Bezucha’s debut film - about Christmas at a rambunctious liberal family - is ultimately a little disappointing as only a very good movie can be – it’s so very smart and accomplished that you’re frustrated at its failure to be a masterpiece. Comme une image is a particularly useful reference point in demonstrating how The Family Stone is ultimately insufficiently philosophical and probing, and ultimately succumbs to an excessive desire for tidiness. But I haven’t smiled or chuckled as much in any film this year, and the sentiment got to me too. So it makes the cut.

Among others that might have made it:  Nobody Knows, Los Angeles Plays Itself, War of the Worlds, Saraband, Yes, Grizzly Man, A History Of Violence, Brokeback Mountain, King Kong (yes!) and lots of movies in the tier just below that. And now on to 2006, with Match Point and The New World already in our sights. Not to mention that Disney movie about the eight huskies that get stranded! Happy New Year!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Christmas movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2008)

What kind of title is that - Christmas Movies? Wasn’t that a long time ago already? And Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages didn’t deliver much seasonal cheer. An old man’s long-time girlfriend dies and he’s suddenly homeless, with escalating dementia. His two middle-aged children, who he’s hardly talked to for years, need to sort out his future, even though they can hardly handle the basics of their own lives. Played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney (so, obviously, there’s no problem here on the acting front), they are both intellectuals with an interest in theatre, both up against a severe ceiling in their careers and emotional lives (someone pointed out that their names, John and Wendy, evoke Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up).

The Savages

The title refers to their surname, but also indicates the unusual chilliness of the approach. There’s no easy sentiment here, no last-minute making up for lost time. The father (played by Philip Bosco) is kept rather distant within the film’s scheme; John barely betrays a moment’s real emotion at the situation, and although Wendy is more demonstrative, she never seems to be engaging with the individuality of the old man before her. The movie isn’t static – they both move ahead, but just in the way that life incrementally nudges you forward.

It’s broadly classifiable as a comedy (Jenkins’ only previous film, the very good Slums of Beverly Hills, was more plainly that), but most of the laughs are of a low-key and rather desperate quality. The only conventionally “pretty” shots in the film come at the very start, portraying an Arizona retirement community, but that’s quickly revealed as an enclave of hypocrisy, having little to do with most people’s experience of old age and death (summed up by Hoffman in a stinging outburst). Almost everything else looks ugly and tawdry. Ultimately, the film’s depiction of old-age dilemmas is more convincing and wrenching than, say, that of Away From Her, but the toughest punch is one of indifference; even at his darkest hour, there’s never a sense that the old man’s plight matters more to his children than their own.


I eventually got round to seeing Kevin Lima’s Enchanted  - given my Grinch-like aversion to sitting among a bunch of happy kids, I needed to wait until the theatres had mostly cleared out. As it was, I’m sure I was as happy as any of the kids, although it may not have showed up on my face as much. This is the movie about a cartoon princess from a classic fairy tale kingdom, sent by a wicked witch through the vortex into modern-day Manhattan. It’s a culture shock, but her sunny attitude never wavers. She falls in with a single dad and his wide-eyed kid, while waiting for her handsome prince to come rescue her.

As G-rated movies go, this isn’t Ratatouille - it’s not thematically ambitious, and doesn’t have the superb overall shape of that animated marvel. But it’s still one of those creations that make you marvel at the current state of the medium. The technology and the coordination dazzle you, but it’s also on top of the basics –the script keeps things light and funny without getting crass, and everything’s primed to spread happiness. The scenes in the middle of Times Square, the arrival point from the other world, don’t seem quite integrated into the rest – they feel more like Letterman stunts – but it just adds to the charm.

Amy Adams, who was Oscar-nominated for Junebug, seems to me a little old for the princess role (she’s 33), but brings immense conviction to it. Even if the movie wasn’t as well executed, she’d go a long way to convincing you otherwise. Ultimately, Enchanted does a better job of making you believe in the power of true love’s kiss than, say, Michael Moore’s movies do on selling their various agendas. Doesn’t that sound like a Christmas movie, speaking secularly of course?

Charlie Wilson’s War

Adams also turns up in Mike Nichols’ new film Charlie Wilson’s War, trailing sunnily behind the eponymous congressman as he manoeuvres through the corridors of 1980’s Washington power, with side trips to the Middle East. Based on a true story, although who knows how closely, it’s the account of how Wilson, a congressman at the time better known for character flaws than leadership substance, spearheaded the effort to adequately arm the Afghan mujahedeen against their Russian occupiers (he saw a Dan Rather report on TV while hanging out naked in a hot-tub with some coke-snorting strippers, and it caught his imagination).

Nichols is as polished and smooth a craftsman as they come, and the film is written by Aaron Sorkin, who proved with West Wing that he can create a compelling, highly articulate illusion of how important things work. Remarkably for such a sprawling subject, it runs barely more than an hour and a half, and is cast with three major league Oscar winners: Tom Hanks as Wilson, Julia Roberts as a Texan society woman who attaches herself to such noble causes, and (most quirkily and indelibly) Philip Seymour Hoffman again, as a CIA operative. There’s obviously major compression going on here – even the most sensitive negotiations are dispensed with in a breezy five minutes – but one assumes we’re getting the story’s major arc at least.

What we’re ultimately looking at, of course, is the birth of the armed radical Moslem movement that led to the Taliban and beyond. This is acknowledged in the film, and after his military achievement we see Wilson trying to squeeze much smaller sums out of Congress for education and reconstruction, without success (by then everyone’s preoccupied with “restructuring Eastern Europe”): the movie ends on an unprintable version of the adage about winning the war and losing the peace. The ongoing relevance of this hardly needs to be underlined.

Still, Charlie Wilson’s War isn’t a movie that arouses anger. This leads to dismissals such as James Rocchi’s: “There’s subtlety, and then there’s invisibility…(the film) is timid where it should be reckless, clever where it should be cutting, funny where it should be fierce.” True enough, and Hanks, although very effective, would probably have given much the same performance if recreating the Dean Martin Variety Hour; indeed, the film’s best sequence, involving lots of frantic movement between one room and the next and intertwining conversations, is pure farce. One also wonders about the apparent use of real amputee children in the scene where Wilson visits a refugee camp; the sequence affects us as it does him, but Nichols hasn’t figured out how to fuse such raw stories of pain with Hollywood glamour without seeming rather gauche.

In other areas the film executes classic Hollywood velvet glove manoeuvres, such as in the gentle handling of Pakistan’s President Zia. It’s probably fair to conclude that one should approach the film with skepticism, but you’d miss out on a good time if you didn’t approach it at all. Kind of like Christmas!