Monday, July 13, 2015

Five films

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2002)

Did you realize that most weeks, six or seven movies open in Toronto? Even if only one or two of those were worth seeing, it’d be pretty hard work. Most weeks I go at least twice, and I always feel I’m missing out on something. But lately I crammed in a few more than usual (long weekends are a blessing). So here’s a departure from the norm: capsule reviews of no less than five recent movies.

Death to Smoochy
A satire of children’s television, with Robin Williams as an embittered, fired kiddie TV host vowing to get even with the good-natured guy in a rhino costume (played by Edward Norton) who now fills his time slot. The movie doesn’t go much further than the concept – there’s no particular satiric point to it, and it doesn’t come close to the kind of territory that would make it memorable on its own terms. The big set pieces – like Norton’s inadvertent appearance before a Nazi rally – are all either reminiscent of other, better films, or else indifferently executed, or often both. And this is one of those movies where the bad guys suddenly turn nice, men and women who hated each other fall in love, and the world turns out almost as pleasant as a Barney song. The film should have been at least twice as convinced of its own nastiness. Still, it’s appealingly put together in a brash, hermetic kind of way, and if the obscenities aren’t half as creative as in a Kevin Smith movie, the odd one still gets an easy laugh.

Festival in Cannes
Henry Jaglom has made a string of small-budget, intimate, intriguing but somewhat rambling movies (detractors consider them whiny and trivial). He also deserves some appreciation from movie-lovers for his steady championing of Orson Welles – although you’d be hard-pressed to see much direct Wellesian influence in his own work. Jaglom fans (and I’m one) should be delighted with this new film, and others will find it a pleasant time-killer. A tale of deal-making (both financial and of the heart) during the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, the movie is a bit more focused than usual for the director – the long philosophical exchanges and direct-to-camera talking heads are sidelined here. But the movie feels like his – sometimes strident actors like Ron Silver are coaxed into the director’s distinctive style of leisurely, amiable naturalism. The plot seems to run out of steam toward the end, but maybe that’s Jaglom’s comment on the sustainability of such a crazy industry. With more than 12 films in the last 20 years though, he’s obviously not being treated too badly by the financial fates, and indeed has the taste not to bite the hands that feed him.

The title stands for the Long Island Expressway, a grim stretch of highway saved from anonymity only by its high celebrity death count. In the faceless surrounding neighborhoods, a teenage boy negotiates ambiguous relationships with his wealthy but possibly corrupt father, his sexually ambivalent friend and the jovial local pedophile (an intriguing characterization by Brian Cox). This is mildly daring material, declining to pass obvious judgment on its numerous flawed characters, suggesting that this cold face of American life may demand a severe reassessment of conventional morality. Ultimately though, it wraps up rather too neatly (how many films have this fault I wonder?) – and it may not be too much more at heart than an oblique manifesto for better-integrated families and communities (the end of the film could be read as a mere sweeping away of deviancy). The film is sternly crafted and always engrossing, although it’s never as intellectually bracing as it intends, and the frequent symbolic return to the highway seems more limiting than liberating.

Suspicious River
Canadian director Lynne Stopkewich’s follow-up to Kissed screened at the Toronto Film Festival in 2000 and opened in the UK long ago – it finally creeps out onto a single screen at the Carlton. How could we treat our own filmmakers so badly? It’s a good movie and deserves to be seen. The story of a small-town motel receptionist who prostitutes herself to the guests initially seems rather thin and monotonous (and it takes a while to appreciate the subtlety of Molly Parker’s performance), but gradually expands into more complex, gripping territory. A subplot about a little girl who observes her parents’ unhappy marriage holds the surprising key to the film. Its last twenty minutes almost have the feel of Mulholland Drive about them – life and death, fantasy and reality intertwine disquietingly, and it’s not clear exactly where the film ends up. That’s not a complaint though – the film feels intuitively right, coaxed from a troubled but defiant psyche that alternates between idealism and pessimism about female sexuality. It occasionally carries an almost zombie-like quality, perfectly capturing the deadening contours of the small town. Kissed received more recognition and praise, but I found Suspicious River more deeply felt and compelling overall. Admittedly I’m overpraising it a bit here, but that’s just my token attempt to remedy the way the film’s been treated.

Last Orders
The best of the films covered here is Fred Schepisi’s adaptation of a Graham Swift novel, about three aging drinking buddies (Tom Courtenay, Bob Hoskins, David Hemmings) mourning the death of a fourth (Michael Caine). With the dead man’s son, they spend the day driving his ashes to the seaside, to be scattered off the end of the pier. Around this journey, the film blends in an astonishing array of flashbacks to various parts of their lives. It could hardly look and feel more authentically drab and desolate – there’s very little misplaced romanticism or nostalgia here – and yet it gradually takes on the expansive, limitless feel of a Bertolucci film. The film skillfully finds moments of hope, of extreme possibilities squandered (Caine remarks that only Courtenay seems satisfied with his lot in life – he’s an undertaker), of faith and longing. It allows us both to feel the impact of those moments and to appreciate that they don’t amount to much from sixty or seventy years on earth. A similar duality applies to the film’s conclusion – Caine’s passing allows a long-delayed renewal for two of the other characters, but we’re not drawn to overestimate what that might amount to at this late stage. The actors are all great to watch, and I think this film will grow in one’s memory.

And I saw Panic Room too! But more on that next time.


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