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.

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