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.

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