(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.