Friday, March 27, 2015

Best of 2006

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2006)

This is a really great list – the best in years I think. Apologies to any masterpieces released in late December. Happy holidays (and rent the DVDs)!

In no particular order:

The New World (Terrence Malick)

Malick’s first film since The Thin Red Line was a 2005 release for Oscar purposes but opened here on January 20 of this year. His telling of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas is simply ravishing, and utterly surprising and bracing for virtually every single minute. It’s not just that Malick rejects the usual norms of narrative and editing – it’s as if he’s never known them, and intuitively replaces mainstream conventions with a sense of intense romanticism that cuts across time and space and inner and outer states. This makes the movie difficult at times, and there are plenty of moments when the prospect of becoming a chocolate box cover seems tangible, but overall the film provides you the consistent thrill of submitting to a simply breathtaking sensibility. I don’t know about its historical accuracy, but it certainly feels anthropologically fascinating as well.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Tommy Lee Jones)

This is a remarkable directorial debut for the 60-year-old icon, as assured as, and quite a bit more distinctive than, Clint Eastwood’s best late films. Jones plays an aging South Texas farmhand setting out to deliver his dead Mexican friend to his hometown. It has the overall arc of a great eccentric Western, true to the evocative power of the landscape and the stoic, taciturn hero, but bursting with oddities – character quirks, strange incidents and parallels, the sheer inexplicable. Most compelling is the way that Jones keeps the lid very tight on his own character, and yet in the end the power of his will and vision – although beyond our understanding – seems to transform the film’s physical and psychological elements alike: it’s one of those endings that simultaneously makes little sense, and yet as much as anyone should possibly need.

The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni)

After a long absence, Antonioni’s 1975 masterpiece resurfaced for some Cinematheque screenings and then at the Carlton. It’s famous for its enigmatic qualities, but I was equally as taken by its specificity and deliberation; it’s a thriller and a dream and an eloquent meditation on cinema. You never see anything nowadays forged with such calm intellectual confidence.

Cache (Michael Haneke)

Haneke’s film, about a family that receives a series of mysterious videos, was almost incalculably more satisfying than most other releases this year. It can be viewed as a satisfying, vaguely Hitchcockian thriller, but at the same time that it caters to our taste for narrative momentum, it rigorously deconstructs and critiques that very desire. Ultimately it’s a serious inquisition into the morality of cinematic pleasure – a project that could have been somewhat academic, but seems to me in this case almost transcendentally gripping.

Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien)

Taiwanese director Hou’s film is made up of three episodes, each starring the same two actors, set at different points in the twentieth century. It’s full of parallels and echoes, and is exquisitely constructed and manufactured; the overall trajectory of each story is clear, but each retains considerable mystery; each forms a mini social critique of the times. After this and his last film Cafe Lumiere, it seems possible that Hou is stripping down his film’s complexities and becoming more purely a humanist, albeit a very specifically Taiwanese one, and this should surely cause his audience and popular stature to increase, although to the extent that this ultimately renders him more conventional, there is something to regret in the evolution too.

Gabrielle (Patrice Cheareau)

Patrice Cheareau may quietly be making a case for himself as one of the world’s best directors, and Gabrielle, about the impact on an arid bourgeois marriage of the wife’s brief affair, is a major addition to that dossier. It depicts an age where marriage is as much a social as a private affair, a matter of contract and convention rather than of love, and the positions of the two main characters grow increasingly complex. It’s also distinctly brutal - the movie reminded me of Scorsese’s description of his Age of Innocence as his most violent film. Cheareau’s approach is masterfully analytical.

A Prairie Home Companion (Robert Altman)

81-year-old Altman keeps delivering one superb possible career endnote after another, and this may be the best of all. That’s what I wrote when I started drafting this article in mid-November, and then he went and died on us. Set around a live radio broadcast based on Garrison Keillor’s real-life radio show, it’s immensely rich, with Altman’s camera in constant elegant motion, showcasing his undiminished powers of composition and coordination. It’s also a wonderful, but realistic, evocation of the spiritual stakes inherent in art. Of all the fine films listed here, it’s probably the one I just plain loved watching the most.

The Proposition (John Hillcoat)

Hillcoat’s film is set in 1880’s Australia but otherwise resembles a classic Western – a story of revenge and murder in a faltering civilization, thick with blood and flies and heat and suffering. It’s thrillingly and exactingly specific about its time and place while tapping all the pleasures of the genre, with a resonant underlying theme about the making of a civilization. By its nature it holds you at a horrified distance, entailing I expect that it will be a film that’s intensely admired more than loved, but I don’t see how its particular project could have been much better executed.

The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry)

Gondry’s extremely personal film about a young Mexican man living in Paris, who habitually confuses the boundaries between dream and reality, is an utter delight. It’s the kind of film that’s so packed with invention and non-linear creativity that you wonder how any human mind ever arrived at it, but it never feels like a mere jaunt, partly because the complex romantic relationship at its centre is so scintillatingly conceived. Gondry’s last film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had greater scope perhaps, but this is the one where he really got to me.

Little Children (Todd Field)

Field’s second film (after his much admired debut, In the Bedroom, which I was a bit lukewarm about) displays dazzling overall skill and intelligence. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson play suburban stay at home caregivers, both in rather arid marriages, who connect at the swimming pool and start an affair. Meanwhile, the community obsesses about the presence of a freed sex offender, back at home with his frail but strong-willed mother. The film is quiet, immensely nuanced, with a prevailing tone of bewildered trauma; sometimes it’s satiric, sometimes outright scary, including many magnificent individual scenes and a wealth of surprising detail, all filtered through a perfect cast. It’s most daring in suggesting the spectrum that links the child molester to the merely unsettled male, creating huge ambiguity about real motivations and virtues.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

May movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2006)

Here are some things I enjoyed about Mission: Impossible III. The pre-credits sequence, plunging us right into a traumatic high-point, as if afraid there was some possibility of bored walk-outs within the first minute; the high-class casting, with the likes of Laurence Fishburne and Billy Crudup and (especially) Philip Seymour Hoffman; (for a different reason) the female trio of Michelle Monaghan, Keri Russell and Maggie Q, all delectable; the fact that the main motivator for the action – referred to as a “rabbit’s foot” is never identified (Hitchcock MacGuffin style); the set-pieces in Berlin and the Vatican and Shanghai; the fact that Monaghan has to save Tom Cruise’s ass at a crucial point; the (by today’s standards) high degree of narrative coherence; the relative lack of irony and digression, all sublimated to sheer momentum; Cruise’s kinetic, mega-focused immersion in events. Now, some of those are things that in other movies I might as equally criticize, or at least consider inconsequential. Which means I don’t have much basis for taking issue with critics who find MI3 utterly shallow and uninteresting (unforgivable gibberish, the British Guardian called it), although I do find the continued shots at Cruise rather tiresome (maybe this would be another opportune time to acknowledge that I also defended Gigli). The movie definitely works best if you regard it as a series of filigrees, skillfully grafted on an inherently rather mundane chassis. But I bet you won’t be bored.

Art School Confidential

Terry Zwigoff’s Art School Confidential sends up one of the easiest targets on the shooting range – the pretensions of a New York art college and its environs. Max Minghella plays the naïve freshman, surrounded by weirdos, and talent has nothing to do with the pecking order; meanwhile, a strangler stalks the students at night. The movie has plenty of chuckles (it’s not really aiming for belly laughs), and at least one interesting and subtle characterization, from John Malkovich as a teacher stuck with rationalizing his own failure. It doesn’t have much overriding purpose though – by the end of it, no one has any remaining credibility, and the idea of aesthetic virtue or integrity is out the window, leaving a rather deadening effect. Zwigoff’s deadpan style is apt in a way, and yet a more analytical sensibility might have found some real profundities in here. Art is still capable of profundity, isn’t it?

I’ve been reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat and musing about the (depending on your viewpoint) perhaps frighteningly ascendant China, but here’s one point for the West at least – we can crow over the sad decline of formerly admired filmmaker Chen Kaige (best known for Farewell My Concubine). With The Promise, he tries to make the same transition as his countryman Zhang Yimou did with Hero and House of Flying Daggers, to lose himself in a big-budget digital-heavy martial-arts romance. It’s a substantial failure, weak and derivative in every respect, but the saddest thing about it is the relative lack of technical facility – compared to what we’re used to, the standard of the effects is often rather crummy, and Chen’s handling of it is all over the place. His world, it seems, is flat lining.

Akeelah and the Bee

Roger Ebert thinks that Akeelah and the Bee is one of the year’s best films so far. I find this a rather sad statement, for what it implies about the influential Ebert’s dwindling expectations for cinema. Not that this mellow drama (co-produced by Starbucks) – about a young black girl from a rough LA neighbourhood, who goes all the way at the National Spelling Bee – isn’t sublimely effective. I thought the current Broadway musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, had thought up every possible spelling bee plot twist, but this movie has a few more, along with a nice conception of how Akeelah’s quest reinvigorates the community (even the local drug dealer puts in coaching time). It’s all enjoyable, but also patently antiseptic and clichéd, and you might hate yourself for succumbing to it. You know too, it’s dumb to pay that much for coffee. 

Wolfgang Petersen’s Poseidon is another of those weird contemporary artifacts where almost unimaginable amounts of money and logistical genius are applied on a lifeless framework, for an almost bewildering end result. The film’s opening shot, circling the circumference of the vast cruise ship while twice picking up lead actor Josh Lucas on the jogging track, immediately informs us both of the film’s virtuosity, and of the vacuous underlying scheme. As in the 1972 original, the ship of course goes belly-up, and a small band of passengers breaks off from the others to seek their way to the surface, as the water level slowly pursues them, fires break out, machinery plummets, and their number slowly dwindles. It’s a pretty concise movie by blockbuster standards, little more than an hour and a half, which shows you how it has little to offer beyond discharging the basic blueprint. Bland casting hardly helps – although it would admittedly have been difficult to match the original line-up (Hackman, Borgnine, Shelley Winters, etc.). All in all, an inevitable flop.

Down in the Valley

In Down in the Valley, Edward Norton plays a disturbed young man who casts himself as a modern-day cowboy – this in suburban L.A. He hooks up with disaffected teen Evan Rachel Wood, instantly attracting the suspicion of her father (and, in the movie’s scheme, local sheriff) David Morse. The film has a genuinely shocking scene around halfway through, but that’s also the point where its initial low-key appeal yields to contrivance and gunplay; the movie’s use of Western archetypes actually makes Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking look subtle. The main point of interest is Norton, channeling De Niro at times (practicing his poses in front of a mirror) and doing an aw shucks routine at others – the actor has always seemed basically unassuming, but when you think about his career you realize he’s increasingly incapable of playing a normal person, and his performance here starts to seem disconcertingly egotistical.

I didn’t much like Chan-wook Park’s Old Boy, despite its Tarantino-approved prize at Cannes, and his latest Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (this is the title on the screen – in the ads, it’s just called Lady Vengeance, eschewing the sympathy angle) starts off in much the same vein. A woman is released from prison after thirteen years, instantly adopts a hard-boiled veneer and goes in search of revenge on the guy who really did the crime. She catches him and hauls him off to a remote location, and then suddenly the movie switches into a more sociological take on the virtue and validity of revenge, while also taking on increasing undertones of ethereal sentimentality (if it went on for ten minutes longer, you almost suspect you’d be watching something like Amelie). It’s very gripping overall, and the portrayal of the woman is ultimately fuller than I would have imagined possible. So there’s more to Park than I thought, although I couldn’t really tell you what exactly that is.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A final batch of fall movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2005)

Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now follows the course of two Palestinian suicide bombers. The pair initially seem like aimless layabouts who sign up for their fate primarily for lack of an alternative, gullibly swallowing their recruiters’ claims for the paradise that awaits them in the afterlife. The mission quickly goes wrong, and as they run around seeking to regroup, the film constructs the situation more fully – on the one hand, they are merely pawns of a wasteful cycle of violence, in which each side fuels the retaliation of the other; on the other hand, the situation of the West Bank natives is so dire – a life imprisonment in which (as they see it) the occupiers are perpetually effective in painting themselves as victims – that the ultimate sacrifice is the only tenable course, personally and politically. The film often seems too linear and forced, and is certainly too reliant on theatrical monologues to make its point, but it can’t help but carry significant political and anthropological weight.

Last Year’s Rent

Chris Columbus’ filming of the long-running Broadway musical Rent may be a partly useful reference point for future generations; you know, in the same way we’re all so glad they filmed Mame. As a contemporary viewing experience, it’s sadly negligible. I only saw the musical in its Toronto production, which seemed to me raucous and barely coherent, although I’ve enjoyed listening to the soundtrack of the Broadway original. The music comes across well enough in the movie (with only a couple of exceptions, it retains the Broadway cast), but everything around it seems either weird or irrelevant. As many critics have pointed out, the material seems dated if not embalmed, and Columbus’ saccharine treatment of such issues as AIDS and drug taking contributes to the sense of a disembodied fantasy; there’s no tangible sense here of a real time or place. However effective the actors may have been on stage, they’re mostly bland on the screen, and mostly too old (it has the feeling of watching the tenth season of something like Friends, but deprived of the previous nine seasons’ easing effect).

The structure is bizarre, with a first half that dawdles its way around an ungainly plot involving a controversial performance art show, and a second half that’s so abbreviated and choppy that a major character develops full-blown AIDS, is hospitalized and dies all in the space of one song. And the choreography is mostly stilted or cluttered. Columbus seems to enjoy the actors, and there’s something vaguely admirable about his fidelity to the original concept, but it’s not as admirable as it is nutty. I’d guess that someone previously unfamiliar with the material would find this film merely bewildering.

High Anxiety

Harold Ramis’ The Ice Harvest is a low-key, claustrophobic movie set on Christmas Eve, as John Cusack, having stolen over two million dollars from the mob, wanders around Wichita Falls, Kansas, dodging potential hit men, anguishing about the trustworthiness of his partner in crime (Billy Bob Thornton) and plotting escape with his primary object of desire (Connie Nielsen). The backdrop is crammed with strippers and lowlifes, and Cusack is oddly compelling as someone who revels in these indicia of masculinity without ever really feeling at one with them; the theme of challenged potency is reinforced by a long interlude with Oliver Platt as his best friend (who’s married, devastatingly unhappily, to Cusack’s ex-wife), oozing drunken neediness all over the screen. The set-up belongs to film noir, with all the double-crossings and ambiguities and angst, and while it’s rather too flat to be a compelling thriller, it’s oddly affecting as a weird, displaced reflection on middle-aged male anxiety. Director Ramis usually works in a much more ingratiating vein, but I hope he continues down this icier road.

Protocols of Zion is a documentary by Marc Levin, who’s best known for Slam, rooted in his astonishment at Jewish conspiracy myths that circulated in the wake of 9/11. Levin quickly sources much of this in the ongoing Internet-driven popularity of a 19th-century screed, and goes on from there to a ramshackle survey of contemporary anti-Semitism, relying rather too much on the blatherings of people he meets in the street and various fringe characters (he also brings his aging father along with him most of time, to no particular end). He also spends much time circling around Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, although never nails (sorry) that wretched work as effectively as he should. Overall, as an agitator Levin is no Michael Moore, and as an analyst he’s far below the level of (for example) Eugene Jarecki’s masterful analysis of the military-industrial complex Why we Fight (which I saw at the film festival and is due on PBS soon). The film’s overall thinness is a real shame, for it’s obviously well intended, and the resurgence of anti-Semitism is one of the most depressing signs of mankind’s pervasive neurotic cowardice. 


From there it’s a natural segue to Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana is an admirably ambitious journey across the spectrum of the oil business, from Washington to Beirut. It blends almost too many plotlines to count, and I can’t imagine anyone not missing some of the narrative points at a first viewing. Most prominent in the mix are George Clooney as a CIA agent and Matt Damon as an industry analyst; the film gradually coalesces on the power struggle in an oil-rich Middle Eastern country (in which the US blatantly, almost gleefully, meddles) and on the corporate-office machinations surrounding an industry takeover. For all its difficulties, it’s a fascinating film, although Gaghan (who won an Oscar for writing Traffic) seems at this point more of a strategist than an artist, and the movie – predominantly even-toned – lacks the muscularity that someone like Michael Mann might have brought to it.

This isn’t entirely inappropriate though, for the film’s general sobriety bolsters its despairing undertone. One of the last lines spoken in the film, left on tape by a suicide bomber, is that “The next world is the true life,” and the film renders it tempting to hope this is so, for the world of Syriana is barely worth saving. American institutions appear particularly corrupt and venal here (“Corruption is our protection,” says one power player), with idealism and justice depicted as mere tools of corporate power, and all foreign engagement as a cynical sham in the grip of (here it is again) the military-industrial complex. Personal relationships are equally untrustworthy, and all that’s good appears merely transient. I have no particular issue with any of this, but the film lacks the subtlety or overall eloquence to convince as advocacy; taken purely on its own terms, it could almost be dismissed as a paranoid fantasy born from too much time in the research library. Gaghan might not be completely unhappy with that assessment though, if the implication is that the film is a spur to further self-education and action.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Even more fall movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2005)

I loved George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, a 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 as I listened to his various on-air monologues (presumably delivered largely if not entirely verbatim) I was astounded at the attention to language, at the confident assumption of a certain literary sensibility on the audience’s part. Of course, one might focus instead on the elitism underlying those times – no doubt television is in some sense more accessible and “democratic” now; and Clooney goes out of his way to show the limitations of the times (in particular through a couple of co-workers who must cover up the fact that they’re married). But on the whole, despite his 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. Murrow’s customary sign-off, which contributes the film’s title, sums up its mood  - taut, but inherently (in the very suggestion of an immediate need for good luck) dark (even the title’s punctuation, with an unusual but very deliberate period inserted on screen after “Luck,” seems meaningful). Clooney’s handling is generally masterly, full of good decisions. Some have pointed out inaccuracies in the film…good night and good luck to them I guess.

Get Rich or Die Tryin’, starring 50 Cent and based on his own violent life story, plays like a rough amalgamation of 8 Mile, Hustle and Flow and whatever gangsta drug movie you care to name, and adds nothing new to the recipe. Fiddy is a dull central presence, and the intriguing cultural experiment of having such a project be directed by My Left Foot’s Jim Sheridan doesn’t pay off.

I've only read one of the Harry Potter books – Chamber of Secrets – and that was in French, as an exercise (it took me ages). I found it over-extended and messy, and these structural problems far outweighed its appeal to the imagination. I acknowledge though that this weakness may acquire undue weight when one labours over the book for months, rather than devouring it in a delighted rush (as per the images that news shows lazily and panderingly provide on each new J K Rowling release date). And of course, maybe it’s better in English. Still, I have remained immune. And while I’ve enjoyed all the films to some extent (counter to general opinion, my favourite remains the first, simply for the pleasure of discovery), I cannot see that the series is achieving much from a cinematic point of view. The latest, Goblet of Fire, has been widely regarded as the best, in part for its greater intensity and control of mood; and for the expanded emotional nuances allowed by the lead actors’ aging. This is fair enough, but it’s so limited; the conception of the characters remains extremely superficial, and in any event they’re swamped by the general mechanics of the film (among the many esteemed supporting actors, Brendan Gleeson is the only one allowed to make much impression).

The plot, involving a wizard contest manipulated by the evil Lord Vordemort, seems ungainly here, reliant on all sorts of arbitrariness and “rules” that the film – needing to answer to few externally-imposed constraints – sets down as it sees fit; maybe in the book it all has more context, but the skeleton looks pretty unsophisticated in a movie’s more compressed surroundings. It ends on a generalized feeling of foreboding, but on its own terms it’s primarily mystifying. New director Mike Newell maintains the mood well, but a lot of it has a businesslike kind of feeling - how much room for personal expression can there be within such a vast preestablished infrastructure?  Goblet of Fire has many engaging scenes – both of high drama and of intimate fumbling – and I cannot see myself abandoning the series now, but I think I am being driven there more by the canny positioning of the films as “events” than by their accumulated pay-off to date.

More film festival movies I caught up with later.

Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s Bee Season is a new-age hodgepodge set around an eleven year old spelling prodigy gliding to the national championships, and the unfulfilled family around her; the movie has an alluring shimmer to it, but its triangulation of spelling mystique, Kabala, Hinduism and psychological trauma is utterly unconvincing. Its conception of the father, played by Richard Gere, as a subtle tyrant doesn’t work either. I was reminded of Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women, a much underrated film that allowed Gere his customary charm while still leaving no doubt about his underlying complacency and perniciousness; nothing about Bee Season exhibits such intuitive assurance.

I won't pretend to being well-read - my familiarity with the source material of Pride & Prejudice comes not from Jane Austen's novel but rather from Gurinder Chadra's recent Bollywoodization of it, Bride and Prejudice, which I now realize was much more faithful than I knew at the time. Chadra's film was a hopeless mess, but actually brought out some of the key points of interest (such as the best friend's marriage to a personally inadequate but economically viable man) more acutely than Joe Wright's new version of the original (albeit more through luck than skill). Wright's film has been criticized as a soft prettification of the novel, and although I'm in no position to judge, that rings true (the Richard Clayderman-like piano on the soundtrack is a key culprit). Still, Keira Knightley is a more gripping central presence here than I thought likely, and the movie delivers - although not at all distinctively - on the central love story; everything else feels short-changed. The pride, a matter of human foibles, is definitely more fully treated than the societally rooted prejudice.

James Mangold’s Walk the Line is the story of Johnny Cash, and many of its raw elements echo Taylor Hackford’s Ray, last year’s story of Ray Charles – despite the different musical genres, the two films play to much the same respectful middlebrow audience. Ray is the more cinematically fluid of the two, and it’s certainly more thorough in conveying a sense of the singer’s historical importance. Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning work as Charles is a more dazzling evocation than Joaquin Phoenix’s as Cash, although Phoenix’s more interiorized work slowly grows on you. Walk the Line’s trump card though is in the character of June Carter, who has a long and bumpy professional and personal relationship with Cash before they settle down to their 35-year marriage. Reese Witherspoon plays June, with great movie-stealing vivacity, and the picture is mostly an up and down chronicle of postponed destiny, with great music woven in throughout. It’s very smooth and highly enveloping , but if the gauge is serious history it might almost as well be about Kenny Rogers.