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!

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