Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Fall movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2007)

James Mangold’s remake of 3.10 to Yuma, with Christian Bale as a one-legged farmer trying to escort the outlaw Russell Crowe to a prison train against impossible odds, is enjoyable enough, but festooned with limitations. It’s most disappointing at the very end, when Mangold tries to pull off two kinds of twists – one psychological/existential, the other narrative. Both fail, for different reasons. A Sergio Leone, say, could have pulled off the former, and would have had the good judgment to torpedo the latter. Of course, if Leone had made it, the film would have been an hour longer too, but might still have seemed shorter than Mangold’s. Anyway, no matter what you prize about the Western genre, this movie isn’t very effective at tapping it.

I don’t remember much of anything now about Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, but if it’s a mental void, it’s a fond one. The Farrelly Brothers’ remake takes the classic premise – about a man who falls in love with another woman on his honeymoon – and plods through it in the most formulaic and soulless manner possible. It’s peppered of course with the usual Farrelly Brothers’ gross-out stuff, but even that hardly has an impact any more. My conscience is clear on this: a few years ago when everyone raved about There’s Something about Mary, and its makers were being fawned over in the serious magazines, I yawned about the movie in these very pages. Now everyone’s moved on to Judd Apatow. Well, I don’t much like his stuff either.

And I increasingly don’t like Wes Anderson’s. The Darjeeling Limited (actually, his movies generally lose me right at the title) is about three brothers on a “spiritual journey” in India, to rekindle their relationship and perhaps find their mother, who’s ensconced in a convent. Anderson’s familiar style, defined through distinctive fonts, bright colours, slow pans, action staged at right angles to the camera, and sundry affectations, has the effect of draining the flavour from everything he looks at; his India is just another source of gimmicks and bric-a-brac, presented without a shred of real engagement or integrity. Anderson’s self-regard seeps off the screen; you can virtually feel his drool on you.

In the Shadow of the Moon evokes the Apollo moon missions through the testimony of the surviving astronauts (excluding the reclusive Neil Armstrong) and the of-course stunning archival footage. It’s fascinating, naturally, and one could easily have wished it to be longer: with the focus so much on the individual bravery of those nine men, there’s little consideration of the underlying science or logistics, or the surrounding politics. But at the end, when one of them takes a shot at the current preoccupation with gas prices in lieu of sensitivity to the planet’s challenges, the basic point is lunar-clear: the “giant leap for mankind” has dwindled into a sad series of furtive sidesteps.

No End in Sight, directed by Charles Ferguson, is an even more impactful documentary, setting out some of the colossal errors, largely rooted in arrogance and complacency you can’t even process, behind the current mess in Iraq. Inevitably, most of the culpable parties declined to be interviewed – the main exception, who at least deserves points for being game, confirms everything you ever suspected about the cloistered indifference of the decision-making process. Other interviewees, describing how the Bush Administration again and again placed ideology and fantasy above all else, are often close to tears. Much as the war continues to be debated and analyzed, Ferguson’s film reminds us that full mass recognition of the venality of what’s been visited upon us is yet to be achieved.

Richard Shephard’s The Hunting Party metaphorically evokes the Iraq war: it’s a big but shady concept, ineptly executed. Set in Bosnia in 2000, and based (somewhat shakily it seems) on a true story, it depicts three journalists on a crackpot enterprise to interview, and perhaps even capture, an evasive war criminal; Richard Gere and Terrence Howard (both as dull as hell) are the lead actors. Nothing about the film really works. It seems to be aspiring to be a blackly comic, allusive romp, but is blandly made and inauthentic-feeling in all respects. It holds irritating pretentions to be educating us about shady American foreign policy (again!), and loftily teases us on what’s wholly or partly invented. Regardless, you just won’t give a damn.

Peter Berg’s The Kingdom isn’t annoying, but merely uninteresting. A group of FBI agents fly into Saudi Arabia after a huge explosion in a US compound. Dodging local customs and assassins in equal measure, they do the CSI thing for a while, and then the frenetic action thing for a while longer. Movies (and TV for that matter) are so adept now at delivering gritty, multi-layered, handheld-camera mayhem that you just find yourself yawning at spectacles that might have dazzled even fifteen years ago; there’s nothing new here, and any five minutes of Syriana (for example) was more provocative and intellectually charged than The Kingdom in its entirety. The actors, including Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, generally seem like actors.

Robert Benton, who won Oscars for Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart, is in his mid-70’s now, and Feast of Love is plainly the work of an old man (that’s a glass-half-full kind of assessment). Set in Portland, it weaves six or seven core characters into an amiable, sometimes poignant story of personal ups and downs; Morgan Freeman is at the centre as a, uh, amiable philosophy professor, and Greg Kinnear is a,  well, amiable coffee shop owner who’s desperately unlucky in love. Kinnear embodies the film’s strengths and weaknesses: it’s unusually sharp in positioning his “nice guy” quality as self-absorbed cluelessness, but ultimately backs off and allows him too lucky a break. The portrayals of lesbians, and of young people generally, are distinctly idealistic, as if Benton had never encountered the former, and last touched base with the latter in the 60’s. There’s some surprisingly fearless nudity in the movie, but no erotic charge (the subplot about a porn movie might as well have turned on a candy floss smuggling ring). But easy as it is to take shots at all this, it’s warm and decent and I liked it. 

Another old man’s film, Nicolas Roeg’s Puffball, made a blink-and-you-missed-it visit to the Royal. It’s a semi-coherent melodrama about a young female architect renovating a remote Irish cottage, and falling into her crazy neighbours’ hormone- and voodoo-fueled orbit. It’s possible to see how this might have carried a pretty strong feminist charge in Fay Weldon’s novel, but nothing really coalesces here. Roeg works in some of his old techniques and themes, but it’s a little bit like watching Bjorn Borg reduced to fiddling around on the ping-pong table. Donald Sutherland, from the director’s classic Don’t Look Now, contributes a mystifying two-scene cameo. Still, if you’re well disposed toward Roeg (and readers may recall I devoted a whole article to him a few months ago), the movie can’t help being enjoyable.

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