Sunday, May 17, 2015

2007 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Four

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2007)

This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2007 Toronto Film Festival.

Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)

Herzog has been making documentaries for nearly forty years now, and in some ways this one involves fairly conventional subject matter by his often extreme standards: a visit to the McMurdo Station base in Antarctica, where he checks out the daily life and undergoes some expeditionary side trips. Herzog doesn’t take the screen this time round, but he’s highly present as narrator and off-screen interviewer, throwing in plenty of his quirky self - he refers to McMurdo’s accommodating “abominations such as…yoga classes” and fills his interviews with off-kilter queries such as whether insanity exists among penguins. Herzog seems to be pessimistic about mankind’s long-term chances, and yet is dismissive about “tree huggers”: always a wacky theorist at best, he remains a celebrant of pioneers and iconoclasts, whether it be scientists who spend their days on the lip of an active volcano (which harks back to Herzog’s classic La Soufriere) or a lone penguin determinedly heading away from its family, toward the mountains and certain death – maybe insane, but certainly admirable in Herzog’s eyes. The title refers not only to the geographic location but also to the sense that mankind’s first outpost on an alien world might look something like this; the beautiful underwater photography also resembles science fiction at times.

Useless (Jia Zhang-Ke)

The young director Jia has already hit a major high point with The World, a piercing examination of alienation within modern China. In the few years since then, he’s worked in a more minimalist vein, including a couple of documentaries. The latest of these, Useless, conveys the sense of a stream of consciousness, almost as if Jia started filming in one fairly randomly chosen place and then followed wherever the connections took him. Fashion is the primary linkage, from a rural factory to a high-concept Paris fashion show, to poor tailors squeezing out a living on mending threadbare garments. The title “Useless” is the translation of the latest line by the designer Ma Ke, who while seeming sincere and pleasant, nevertheless lives in astonishing splendour compared to virtually everyone else in the film, spouting various airy aphorisms that suggest she’s lost touch. The title also carries easy resonance beyond that of course. It’s almost impossible to make a documentary about contemporary China that’s anything other than fascinating, and Jia provides some fascinating parallels and contrasts while withholding any overt interpretation (there’s no voice over and only a few explanatory captions). It’s very worthwhile viewing but I don’t think this is his most valuable vein: hopefully the next film will again evidence greater ambition and personal investment.

Chronicle d’un ete (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin)

A festival sidebar devoted to Quebec director Michel Brault provided my first chance to see this famous 1961 cinema verite milestone (on which Brault acted as one of the cinematographers). It attracted a very sparse audience, suggesting again that the festival’s great success in galvanizing the mainstream for ten days doesn’t necessarily serve as the rising tide to lift the cinematic appetite as a whole. The film is a great time capsule, at times seeming more naïve than profound now, but yielding numerous fascinating moments. Starting off by interviewing random passers-by on their degree of happiness, it evolves into a more probing examination of working class lives and then into broader vignettes of the 1960 summer. The Algerian war looms large, and it’s an age when even a relatively young woman could have a concentration camp ID tattooed on her arm, but we also take in St. Tropez vacations and amateur rock-climbing attempts. The film comments throughout on its own making, including an epilogue in which the main participants debate what we’ve just seen, differing markedly on the degree to which some of them were “acting” rather than simply being. For all the talk of truth, manipulation (in the sense of directorial choice, influence, juxtaposition, etc.) is inevitably prominent throughout, but the earnestness is still engaging. It’s a shame that something like the Documentary Channel, in between seemingly endless close-up examinations of the porn industry, can’t make historic material like this more readily available.

And here are two more I caught up with in their current commercial release.

In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis)

Haggis’ somber drama, an amalgam of detective story and sorrowful war requiem, is a way better picture than his Oscar-winning Crash, which I found almost unwatchable. It also relies too much on coincidence and contrivance: for instance, Tommy Lee Jones, playing amateur detective, is almost always a step ahead of the cops on the case. But that helps here to illuminate the overall theme of eroding American values, particularly in its most cherished institutions. Jones plays a retired military man who’s probably never questioned the code in his whole life; one of his two sons died in uniform, and the other has now disappeared, just days after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq: military and civilian police fight over jurisdiction, with neither side seemingly caring. It’s carefully worked out, and although the film has struck some as being rather plodding, I found the desolate tone – perfectly refracted through Jones – quite moving. It’s good on the heartland culture too, precisely deploying drinks and cigarettes and strip joints (and Bibles and Support our Troops signs), and it dares to suggest that the strategic blunder of Iraq might have engendered a near-pathology in the troops. A truly great film would have explored that idea at least a little more directly. The denouement comes in a bit of a rush, and the final scene (messing with the Stars and Stripes, no less) is a return to heavy-handed symbolism, but it’s an interesting piece overall. 

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford  (Andrew Dominik)

That train-length title tells you the project here: to take a well-established, often-mythologized historical event, and scrutinize it with an objectivity that eschews normal suspense; as such the film runs over two and a half hours, and is often deliberately dour. Brad Pitt is interestingly ambiguous, if as usual a bit too recessive, as Jesse, with Casey Affleck doing pretty well with Robert Ford’s arc from naïve hero-worship to spooked self-preservation. But Dominik doesn’t fill this ambitious framework with anything like enough substance – there’s not a strand, not a ghost of an idea here, that hasn’t been done better before. Of course that’s true of most modern movies – it’s a mature art form, what can you expect? – but Dominik’s apparent pretensions to stand astride the genre invite these comparisons to come flooding in, causing the film to virtually implode.

2007 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2007)

This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2007 Toronto Film Festival.

La fille coupee en deux (Claude Chabrol)

Chabrol is probably the least intellectually esteemed of the three French New Wave veterans who brought films to this year’s festival, having spent much of his efforts (and he’s been amazingly prolific) on melodramatic material of somewhat uncertain thematic value. Inevitably, the precision that marked classics like Le Boucher has eased off now, to be replaced by a sense of relative effortlessness that might yield either grace or fuzziness (based, it sometimes seems, on little more than how the wind blows). The new film is another unwieldy concoction, with Ludivine Sagnier as a TV weather girl who has an affair with an esteemed, much older author, while being pursued by the more age-appropriate but unstable heir to a chemical fortune (played, bizarrely ripely, by Benoit Magimel). The film mostly bumps along, with a confusing sense of time and psychology; some of its more interesting avenues are barely explored, whereas much of the plot turns on some “depraved” actions presented here with a rather doddery-seeming discretion. None of it is dull, but it again carries a sense of near-randomness, with the different tones and structures never coalescing. It just doesn’t feel as if Chabrol tried very hard to think his way into these people and situations, which leads here to overall hollowness, rather than masterly transcendence.

Les amours d’Astree et de Celadon (Eric Rohmer)

87-year old Rohmer has said this may be his last film, and if so he may have chosen an almost perfect parting note. Adapted from a 17th century novel and set who knows when, this is a simple tale of love lost and regained between two shepherds, apparently shot in extremely modest circumstances, and for a little while it seems perhaps too flighty for this great director. But we soon see how this might all along have been the blueprint for almost all his wonderful comedies and proverbs, turning on another moral dilemma which gives rise to delicious plot complications. The film involves some suspension of disbelief, or at least the ability to think oneself into a different frame of reference. But since the opening titles gently caution us that this has been shot in an alternate location because the true setting is now inadequately preserved, we’re clearly compelled to bring our contemporary sensibility to the table. The closing sequences are some of Rohmer’s most unrestrained celebrations of love, not to mention being unusually erotic for him. Overall, if it’s not as complex or completely fulfilling as his very best work, there’s no doubt that Rohmer’s vision for the film, and for its place in his wonderful career, has been completely achieved.

Ne touchez pas la hache (Jacques Rivette)

A mere 80 years old, Rivette’s film by contrast doesn’t feel at all like a wrapping up work (unless one counts the presence of several key past collaborators in supporting roles), but rather like a quite surprising new direction. As concentrated as anything he’s ever done, this is an adaptation of Balzac’s novel The Duchess of Langeais, about what we would nowadays call a distinctly passive-aggressive relationship between the duchess and her military suitor. He obsessively devotes himself to her, winning only minor concessions; when he turns the table and starts to ignore her, she becomes obsessed with regaining his devotion. The film is superbly controlled and well acted by Jeanne Balibar and Guillaume Depardieu, but I must confess it strikes me as second-tier Rivette. In his best films, which are just about as good as anyone’s, he’s constructed a unique cinematic universe: elegant, literate, mystical, playful. It’s only at the very end, when the officer and his friends set out on a seafaring quest, that Ne touchez pas la hache really works in that classic vein. But as with just about every Rivette movie I’ve ever seen, I suspect it will take multiple viewings to open up all the rewards here.

Before the Devil Knows you’re Dead (Sidney Lumet)

83-year-old Sidney Lumet is perhaps the oldest working American director (you can see there’s a theme to how I make many of my selections – I call it “always buy brand names”). Never recognized as an auteur, Lumet’s best work nevertheless exhibits a terrific fusion of form and content, a great feel for the contemporary pulse, and of course often-brilliant acting. The glory days of Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon et al are a while ago now, although his last film Find Me Guilty (which I haven’t yet managed to see) reportedly recaptured some of the old flair for atmospheric logistics. The new film certainly does so in spades. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke are brothers (which as imaginative casting goes, works way better than Lumet’s casting of Sean Connery and Dustin Hoffman as father and son in Family Business), both suffering major money problems, which they aim to solve by knocking off their parents’ jewelry store. Needless to say, things go wrong, but if some of the plot mechanics are broadly predictable, Lumet’s masterly handling of the steadily darkening tone certainly isn’t. The film does some jumping around in time, which seems obligatory of all thrillers now, but never becomes a prisoner of its structure: the director has a great feeling for the lives and the settings and coaxes several of the actors (Hoffman, and the magnificent Albert Finney as their slowly tuning-in father) to an Oscar-worthy level. Amazing to say, but this might ultimately rank as one of the best of Lumet’s fifty or so pictures.

And here’s one I caught up with in its current commercial release

Across the Universe (Julie Taymor)

This is certainly a film of very high imagination and quality of execution, weaving thirty or forty Beatles songs into a narrative about young people in the 60’s, against the backdrop of Vietnam, the draft, and the evolving counterculture; glamorously turbulent America is contrasted with drab industrial Liverpool. Certain sequences are breathtaking in their surreal vision, and Taymor – who ascended to major fame with the stage production of The Lion King – unleashes the entire range of her gifts here. But you may detect a certain stiffness to this praise, and unfortunately the film is hardly as galvanizing as you’d want. Structurally ingenious as the narrative may be, it brings as much fresh insight to its period and characters as The Lion King did to the serious study of African ecosystems. The acting and musicianship are mostly bland, the premise soon gets tired (the lead character is called Jude…the women around him are called Lucy and Sadie and Prudence…eventually you can’t help rolling your eyes), and even Taymor’s virtuosity sometimes seems merely like undisciplined fiddling at the digital keyboard. All you Need is Love, of course, provides the finale. As they say, if a thing’s not worth doing, it’s not worth doing well.

2007 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Two

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2007)

This is the second of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2007 Toronto Film Festival.

The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin)

Akin’s fiery Head-On, about the marriage and love affair (in that order) between two Turkish immigrants in Germany, was one of my favourite films of a few years ago. The new film is not as striking, with an intricate but conventional criss-crossing plot structure and a less hectic pace. A Turkish immigrant in Germany (to date Akin’s filmic universe has remained very close to his personal one) courts a whore and then accidentally kills her; his son, a professor of German, goes to Istanbul to find the woman’s daughter, who’s a political activist, and impulsively decides to relocate there. Meanwhile, the young activist is in Germany, searching for her mother, until she gets deported back home, and the strands pull together (while never quite getting tied up). Akin is great at evoking the flavour of Turkish culture, and this is a fairly rich creation overall, apparently skeptical about the overall prospects for Turkey’s integration into Europe (mordantly summed up by echoing images of coffins being transported between the two countries – the film was completed though before the religious controversies around the recent elections) while nevertheless seeming almost sentimental about the possibility for reconciliation on the personal level. But the overall artistic direction isn’t as striking as the incidental devices. The cast includes the indelible Hanna Schygulla, from so many Fassbinder movies of the 70’s and 80’s, although I have to confess I failed to recognize her for at least twenty minutes.

L’Age des tenebres (Denys Arcand)

Notwithstanding patriotic pride at a Canadian Oscar winner, I can’t say that Arcand’s movies have ever impressed me much. I found The Barbarian Invasions something of a self-important mess, and the famous “adult” dialogue mostly grated on me; he never provides much in the way of interesting style either. An unsurprising follow-up, the new film is about a middle-aged civil servant who’s suffocating beneath a dull job, loveless marriage, indifferent kids, mammoth mortgage, and all the rest of it. He fantasizes constantly about sex and celebrity and power, with Diane Kruger playing the main recurring lust object. The movie is less sprawling than Barbares, more invested in the misery of a single sad sack Everyman, and the script is largely a scrap book of op-ed headlines, along with some unremarkable satire (mainly of the foolish Government of Quebec bureaucracy) and those mostly leaden fantasy scenes, and it doesn’t really end so much as just run out of ideas. And this does definitely not rank high in the pantheon of great films about women. Even so, I actually liked it a bit more than Arcand’s last few films, if only for the perverse reason that defeatism and limited achievement are more tonally matched to the material than his usual flimsy bravado. And the last few scenes do have a faintly touching pastoral quality.

A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Wayne Wang)

The festival strangely categorized Wang, whose last film was Queen Latifah’s Last Holiday, along with Rivette and Rohmer in this year’s “Masters” category. Maybe it was an over-reaction to Wang’s relatively rare feat of having two new films on display. I caught one of them, about an aging man visiting his daughter in the US for the first time. She’s been there a dozen years, is now divorced and assimilated – in particular to using English as the only medium to fluently express her emotions – and since the two never had much of a relationship to begin with, it’s a largely desolate visit…until a confrontation about both past and present pulls them into at least incrementally better mutual understanding. It’s a modest film for sure, following familiar themes of thwarted communication across cultural and generational chasms – even though it’s only 83 minutes long, it feels repetitive at times. Still, I did find it somewhat touching, although it’s possible I’m a sucker for this subject of language as a wedge, which has some relevance to my own background. It’s hardly the work of a master – it actually feels more like that of a tentative new filmmaker, which I guess may have been exactly Wang’s intention. If this is indeed the start of a new path, it looks more promising than the old one had become.

And here are two festival films I caught up with in their current commercial release

The Brave One (Neil Jordan)

This is the one with Jodie Foster as a New York radio commentator whose fiancée is brutally murdered; frustrated with the ineffectual police investigation, and newly aware of the city’s scary underbelly, she buys an illegal gun and becomes a vigilante. The film has provoked quite a debate, turning on whether it’s an artful comment on vigilantism and on the Death Wish genre, or merely a tarted-up specimen of same with a gender twist. I’m of the latter opinion – this is merely Charles Bronson land with better literary references. If it had any real investigative intent, or a desire to do more than pander to its audience, it would construct a less comprehensive identification with Foster’s character (in the circumstances her performance is too good). It would offer fewer glib one-liners, fewer scumbags virtually tripping over themselves to get blown away, a less comfortable pacing and stylistic approach, and – above all perhaps – an ending that didn’t let everyone involved (not least of all the audience) off the hook so completely. And it wouldn’t have a quasi-romance between villain and cop (Terrence Howard, also too good for the movie) that’s conceived entirely in movie terms. The title (brave!) is just about as manipulative and inappropriate as everything else in the movie.

Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)

This is a fairly logical follow-up to Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, again taking a story of institutionalized brutality erupting into normal lives. The setting this time is London, one of the world’s great thriving melting pots of course, and one in which at least some of the current boom may represent the wages of sin. Naomi Watts plays a nurse who’s drawn into the orbit of the Russian mob while looking for the family of an orphaned baby; Viggo Mortensen (once again excellent) is an ultra-contained chauffeur and clean-up man whose motives are more complex than they seem. If nothing else, Cronenberg seems now like one of the most accomplished of genre directors; every aspect of the film – style, pacing, visceral impact, not least of course in an already notorious bathhouse fight sequence – is quite superb. He’s also masterly at weaving in some black humour without being gauche about it. The subculture depicted could easily seem caricatured or melodramatic – gangster-type swaggering has consumed more screen hours than car chases – but Cronenberg makes it persuasive as an anthropological study. The deft ending is satisfying in narrative terms while leaving a distinct despair about the two solitudes of our real and shadow societies. The only caveat is simply the broad similarity to the previous film – Cronenberg is working at such a high level now that you’re hungry to see what he might bring to a wider range of material.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

2007 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part One

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2007)

This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2007 Toronto Film Festival.

The Man From London (Bela Tarr)

I’ve seen only one Bela Tarr film, The Werckmeister Harmonies; I especially regret not seeing his seven-hour (OK, it’s a qualified sort of regret) Satantango, most famously championed by Susan Sontag (note – I subsequently rectified this). The new film, which made it through numerous production challenges, is his first since Werckmeister, seven years ago now. Based on a George Simenon story, and a mere two and a quarter hours long (and sadly feeling no shorter), it tells of an ordinary man who witnesses a crime, retrieves a suitcase full of stolen money, and gets drawn into the consequent spiral. In interviews, Tarr expresses a complex set of ambitions for the film – “it deals with the cosmic and the realistic, the divine and the human…” – but I don’t think these are fully realized. His notoriously exacting technique – shooting in pristine black and white, involving very long, deliberately paced, meticulously orchestrated takes – seems rather constricting here, and the story is too generic for the “cosmic” aspects to soar very high. Amid an authentically unhealthy looking cast, the presence of recognizable (and badly dubbed) Tilda Swinton as the protagonist’s wife just seems like a mistake. A couple of very long close ups of a secondary female character might oddly be the film’s most riveting moments, but suggest a latent desire to have taken all this in a different direction entirely. Sadly, you get the feeling that the struggle to make the film may have slightly calcified a great artist’s intuition.

Les chansons d’amour (Christophe Honore)

This is the first film I’ve seen by young French director Honore, and it certainly goes down easily. He seems to be aspiring here to be a modern-day Jacques Demy in presenting the tangled love lives of a few young Parisians, who frequently articulate their feelings by bursting into song. Louis Garrel (who has a real throwback quality about him, sometimes reminding me of Truffaut’s original muse Jean-Pierre Leaud) is the centre – a young professional who travels through superficial bliss, through terrible loss, to a state that’s far less definable but perhaps more sustainable. He’s surrounded by an endlessly shifting network of plausibly needy, uncertain, flawed people, and the movie is a great uncliched hymn to Paris. Honore’s vision and style aren’t as joyously all-encompassing as Demy’s (and the songs aren’t as memorable either) but he certainly takes advantage of contemporary pragmatism while exhibiting a classical good humour and emotional curiosity. The film’s closing line – “Love me less but love me a long time” – is a nice summing up of its underlying sense of neediness, and given where the film begins (a deliriously attractive guy-and-two-girls-in-a-bed set-up), one would never guess the parties to that final exchange, nor its setting.

The Past (Hector Babenco)

This is an unexpectedly intimate work from Argentinean director Babenco, best known for his Hollywood stint that produced Kiss of the Spider Woman and At Play in the Fields of the Lord. It starts with a young married couple undergoing one of the all-time amicable breakdowns, after which he (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) initially falls on his feet more comfortably than she does. But as he goes through a string of break-ups and personal reversals, all somehow linked to the periodic reappearances of his ex-wife, it starts to seem their fates are still linked after all, something that she attributes to his failure to provide adequate closure when he ignored her parting request to help sort through their old photos. At times then it resembles a morality tale; at others it functions as a tribute to feminine patience and fortitude; the pieces are often melodramatic, and yet the protagonist’s reinventions of himself (his transition from overweight crapped-out alcoholic into a sleek personal fitness trainer is particularly startling) almost have the feel of science fiction. It’s certainly interesting, although never really fulfilling. Gael brings a lot to the essentially passive main character, although the actress playing his ex-wife, with far fewer scenes, dominates the film, creating a character who seems capable of lurching at any given moment in any direction, and yet is still true and moving.

Le voyage du ballon rouge (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)

Hou has been moving recently from his original project of dramatizing the political and social history of his homeland Taiwan toward a more universally-based immersion in cinematic joy; the new direction may be less rigorous in some ways, but it’s starting to look as if Hou should perhaps be counted as being two of the world’s best directors! The new film is a tribute to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 The Red Balloon (which I’ve actually never seen), and it’s Hou’s first to be made outside Asia. It’s breathtaking under those circumstances that it’s suffused in such easy naturalism. Juliette Binoche (in one of her most colourful, magnetic performances) is an actress and single mother who engages a Chinese film student as a nanny for her young son; scenes of everyday life around their wonderfully cluttered Parisian apartment contrast with vignettes of the red balloon, which may or may not belong to a short film the student is making. There’s little plot and no narrative closure as such, and the pace is serene, articulated through Hou’s usual long takes (which are so much more intoxicating than Bela Tarr’s), but the film swells with possibility and connection. It deconstructs cinematic magic by laying out some digital tricks, but only to remind us (and virtually every character in here is a creator of some kind) how our sense of beauty in art is enhanced rather than dulled by an appreciation for the underlying process. This is easily one of the best films of the last few years.

The Walker (Paul Schrader)

In my preview article I cited this as being perhaps my top pick among the festival’s English-language offerings; consequently, it ends up perhaps being the greatest disappointment of the films I saw. On paper it sounded great, bearing some echoes of Schrader’s early success American Gigolo. The (gay) scion of an esteemed political family (Woody Harrelson) now spends his life as an amusing bauble on the arm of Washington’s wealthy older women; but when he’s caught up in a murder investigation, in which he’s protecting a compromised senator’s wife (Kristin Scott-Thomas), it all starts to unravel. Lauren Bacall and Lily Tomlin are in the mix as well, so it’s certainly an interesting cast, and Harrelson’s stylized performance becomes more persuasive as it goes on. The sexual and political themes of Schrader’s best work are certainly implicit in the material, but the handling is dull, and the whole thing becomes increasingly swamped by (often barely penetrable) plot mechanics, yielding only the vaguest and most generic of insights into the devious workings of the machinery of power. I’ve enjoyed Schrader’s work most of all when his famously turbulent psyche has been closest to the surface – his delirious version of Cat People being the prime example – but The Walker is just too drab and conventional to be any fun.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

That's entertainment!

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2007)

D J Caruso’s Disturbia is an entertaining thriller about a teenager who’s sentenced to three months’ house arrest for punching a teacher; when his exasperated mother takes away his X-Box and itunes, he’s reduced to spying on the neighbours for kicks. This all goes fine as long as he’s checking out the sexy new neighbour to the left, but what about the creepy guy who lives alone on the right? The premise is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but the film’s nowhere near as rigorous – Hitchcock’s exacting creation of dramatic and thematic space is replaced here by something far more haphazard (for one thing, I could never figure out how the kid could possibly see so clearly into so many adjacent houses). It’s not a bad movie though. Shia Laboeuf is quirkily persuasive in the lead role, voyeurism remains a nearly unbeatable subject for cinema, and events are pretty nicely plotted until the end, when the climax seems under motivated and over the top. It still stays within the bounds of the PG-rating though.

Fracture/Hot Fuzz

Gregory Hoblit’s Fracture is an entertaining suspense thriller, although lacking even as much distinctiveness as Disturbia. Anthony Hopkins (in some scenes displaying a lighter touch than usual; in others succumbing shamelessly to Lecteritis) shoots his wife, confesses to it, and looks like a slam dunk conviction for prosecutor Ryan Gosling (as inherently interesting to watch as always), who’s so confident he barely bothers to prepare. The trial generates shocking revelations and the case falls apart, taking much of Gosling’s life with it. There’s more to come of course. Fracture is a modest creation, just centering really on one neat idea involving the murder weapon; everything else is just padding, but of a very plush, easy on your rear end quality.

The British Hot Fuzz is an entertaining comedy about a tough London cop who’s transplanted to a sleepy rural village. Initially the lackadaisical attitude of his colleagues and the inconsequentiality of the local transgressions drives him nuts, but then people start to die, and it turns out he’s headed for the biggest shoot-em-up of his life. Explicitly inspired by the likes of Point Break and Bad Boys 2 (and I figure I caught only around 5% of whatever other references are packed in there), the movie is remarkably effective in integrating action movie tropes with a rather touching respect for traditional English values – I can’t think of a similar project so free of cheap shots, and even the dastardly plot has a kind of deranged misplaced sweetness to it. Winking at the audience is also kept to an absolute minimum. It’s as good as, but not massively different from, director Edgar Wright’s earlier movie Shaun of the Dead, but you feel he’s working in his comfort zone, so why complain.

Dog Movie!

Year Of The Dog is an entertaining oddity, and a bit of a surprise – generally advertised as a comedy, it’s surprisingly raw and depressing at times, and then morphs into a (apparently) sincere portrait of how an unfulfilled woman finds her calling in pro-animal activism. Molly Shannon plays Peggy, an office assistant who channels her affection into her little dog Pencil; when he dies of toxic poisoning, she’s devastated, but the chain of events presents the possibility of a more rounded life, accompanied by growing social awareness, all of which gradually strains her equilibrium, if not her sanity.

I was thinking of devoting a whole article to this one, but I would just have ended up rambling about dogs, and I’ve gone that way several times before. Suffice to say that at the moment I can’t think of a movie that devotes as much time to dog ownership without getting overly cute about it (not that Pencil isn’t a very sweet-looking dog). That aside, the film is rather strange, with a deadpan, sometimes even creepy tone, and a rather depressed view of people (among other things, you’ve never seen such a badly dressed bunch in an American movie): its intention is rather hard to gauge at times, but it’s always, well, entertaining. Shannon is a bit of a weak link unfortunately, relying on limited technique and often seeming outclassed by the (real) actors around her, but you forget about it as the film’s wacky suspense takes hold. The director is Mike White, who’s previously written and acted in several films: Year of the Dog is most reminiscent perhaps of the even more peculiar Chuck & Buck (although dog obsession is way healthier than Buck’s fixation on reconnecting with his old friend was).

The French Avenue Montaigne is an entertaining confection set in the Paris theatre district, juggling eight or so primary characters, all at different points in the complex graph of personal/professional satisfaction. The main point, I think, is the potentially stifling underside of high culture: in the thematic climax, an esteemed but dissatisfied concert pianist suddenly stops mid-performance, rips off his white tie and penguin suit, and keeps on going in his undershirt.  But with that mild critique, of course, comes a huge amount of good nature, affection, and scenic views of Paris. The film, directed by Daniele Thompson, is ultimately limited; Agnes Jaoui’s work, for instance, feels superficially similar while ultimately yielding true philosophical and psychological surprises, even near-revelations, which just doesn’t happen here. But if you like French cinema of the kind people mean when they talk about “French cinema,” this is absolutely failsafe.

Back to Disturbia

The Canadian Radiant City is an entertaining treatment of the subject we started with, the dismal underbelly of suburbia. Specifically, we’re in the environs of Calgary, where people live in surroundings that would once have been considered palatial, but at the cost of spending half their lives in the car, barely knowing their neighbours, and evidencing all kinds of neuroses and dissatisfactions. The film focuses on one apparently typical family, while weaving in an assortment of talking heads to make Jane Jacobs-type points (although Jacobs herself isn’t mentioned). For most of its length the film is an interesting but not particularly surprising or original documentary (particularly to us downtown types), and then suddenly there’s a twist that puts a slightly different spin on everything; it could be seen as backpedaling a little, or else as a final kicker that even more establishes the superficiality of what we’ve been studying. Or as something in between.

The film makes some interesting points on the future of the suburbs, given their inherent unsuitability for evolving and remaking themselves in the way that downtowns, with their mix of building types and functions, can do. And while they promise space and cleanliness and tranquility, they’re also evil masterpieces of psychological and economic engineering, rendering their inhabitants infrastructure-heavy, obligation-laden and existentially bewildered. In the long run it’s likely neither environmentally or psychologically sustainable. Disturbia indeed!