Sunday, June 28, 2015

December movies #2

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2007)

The Royal cinema on College West reopened in mid-December, complete with picketing projectionists and the Toronto premiere of Reginald Harkema’s Monkey Warfare, a highly appealing little movie (lasting just 75 minutes and appearing to have the budget of the average wedding video). Don McKellar and Tracy Wright play a jaded couple, one-time revolutionaries of sorts, now living rather aridly in Parkdale, making money mostly by scavenging (aided with a sweet rent deal from an inattentive landlord). When a young drug dealer (Nadia Litz) comes on the scene the balance shifts, in some ways for the better, in others not. Harkema perfectly catches the grungy lifestyle, and evokes the earlier, funnier Jean-Luc Godard through his use of jump cuts, graphics and suchlike; the movie conveys an authentic hankering for the thrill of making some kind of stand, and for how heavy life can be without it. It ends rather abruptly though, leaving you wishing he could have extended his examination further, although in the circumstances it’s easy to believe he just ran out of money.

The Good German

Steven Soderbergh seems to be in a position now where he could whip up money to make just about anything, and his new film The Good German is one of his periodic “conceptual” projects, the concept in this case being a modern-day movie made in the style of something from the 40’s (apparently to the point of using old cameras). This stars George Clooney (certainly the best available choice) as a military investigator in post-war Berlin, trying to untangle a complicated plot involving femme fatale Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire as a scheming driver. Nothing about the film strikes radically new narrative or thematic ground, so on the face of it the payoff would merely be to craft a viewing experience with a sixty-year-old feel to it, but I’m not sure what value one could ever really put on that. Not to mention that (to my thinking at least) Soderbergh confuses the premise through a very modern use of language and violence.

Still, the film does a good job of crafting an old-fashioned Big Sleep kind of complexity, along with multiple moral shadings, although it tends to make you wish for the zippiness of a Howard Hawks (The Good German is quite laborious and monotone). The final scene does bring a contemporary note of reckoning to a Casablanca-style set-up, and I will say overall it left with me a more compelling aftertaste than I might have expected at the time. Still, overall it’s a film that might have been designed just to be lost in the shuffle.

The Good Shepherd

It’s only near the end, when we see the preparations for a family wedding intercut with the build-up to the bride’s demise, that the ambition of Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd becomes completely clear. Matt Damon plays this film’s Michael Corleone, but the institution here is the CIA and its wartime precursor, which he joins with the same patriotic optimism that caused Al Pacino to enlist in The Godfather. He rises in the organization, but the original values become abstracted and distant, the difference between the good and the bad guys becomes tenuous and shifting, his connection to his family almost disintegrates, and in the end he’s responsible for terrible acts, but on he goes, dead inside, a virtual automaton.

Unfortunately, The Good Shepherd is far less dynamic than The Godfather, with none of its flair for accessible yet nuanced storytelling; De Niro is more of an assembler than a real director. The cast is impressive (Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, De Niro himself and many others, surrounding the minimalist Damon), but it feels too often that we’re merely watching a parade of cameos. Most problematic is De Niro’s failure (despite the movie’s 160 minute length) to communicate the real geopolitical implications of the CIA’s growing reach; we seldom feel the raw power that comes to lie at Damon’s fingertips, and it’s a mere guess what it does to his psyche. The film ends up unequal to its subject in almost every respect, clinging to superficial devices and images when it should have been complex and upsetting.

Two Fantasies

Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is one of last year’s most distinctive and compelling films (and if you remember my ten best list from a few weeks ago, that’s saying a lot). It’s set in Spain in 1944, in an outpost where fascist soldiers stake out a group of forest-dwelling rebels. The evil captain summons his pregnant wife to stay with him, and she brings along her 11 year old daughter from a previous marriage, a girl named Ofelia who is quickly introduced into a magical underworld of fairies and fauns and strange creatures, which may or may not be a creation of her imagination, and in which she may or may not be the reincarnation of a princess who fled centuries earlier to the world of men. The film is superbly visualized, expertly constructed, and completely mesmerizing; it's satisfying both as a muscular adult fairy tale and as a serious minded (if enjoyably lurid) depiction of the fascist psyche. It’s both highly specific and illuminating, and at the same time timeless and universal (one suspects that a greater knowledge of the time and place and surrounding culture would open up almost boundless resonances). Del Toro’s previous films (including Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone) have been a bit too conceptual and genre-bound for my own taste, but Pan’s Labyrinth has a rare assurance.

The following day I saw Steven Shainberg’s Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, which occasionally struck me as a variation on del Toro’s film, except that the mistreated girl is now famous photographer Arbus in her formative 50’s housewife phase, and instead of the magical underworld the film conjures up a weird upstairs neighbour who leads her into a personal awakening. This is a man covered in hair, played by Robert Downey Jr., who has connections with a whole network of physically distinctive people of the kind who would come to populate much of Arbus’ work. As the film’s title and the opening credits make clear, this is all invention, and I’m not sure it’s particularly flattering to Arbus: at times she seems like no more than a flighty sensualist. At best, the concept does no more than vaguely explain her affinity for certain types, but this doesn’t take us very far toward understanding the rigours of her very distinctive aesthetic approach. On its own terms though, Fur is surprisingly beguiling, and quite sensitive and provocative on a scene-by-scene level. It’s best taken, I think, as a wacky fantasy that – despite the lack of any overt supernatural presence – might actually have less to do with the real world than Pan’s Labyrinth.

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