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.


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