Monday, October 19, 2015

Cinema bites

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2002)

The wonder of cinema is that it’s still a wonder to us. Virtually as long as the medium’s existed, directors have tested the limits of its storytelling conventions, but the conventions remain intact, and so the limits continue to be tested. Of course, like everything else, it’s more knowing now. For all his huge intellect, Jean-Luc Godard’s 60’s and 70’s experiments and meditations seem to carry a rush of pure puckish joy that’s missing from, say, Mike Figgis’ Time Code. One could organize quite a debating session on the proposition of whether or not cinema should be taken seriously. Maybe, to bend a movie title, we should view it as hopeless but not serious.

Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh, I mentioned the other week, works at a startling pace. In the last five years he’s released Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic (for which he won an Oscar) and Ocean’s Eleven. That’s an impressive line-up in such a short time, although it’s not easy to determine Soderbergh’s creative personality from it. He makes vivid, lively films, full of incident, attuned to their settings, and ably showcasing their actors. That may seem like superficial praise, but maybe not, for Soderbergh’s interest in surfaces may be worth just about any other director’s interest in depth.

Erin Brockovich is one of the most skillful star vehicles in memory, and looks as though everything else in it was calibrated for the sole purpose of showcasing Julia Roberts. Ocean’s Eleven had no discernible purpose other than bringing together an eclectic bunch of big name actors (the scene at the end, where the camera pans across most of the cast standing contentedly in a row looking over Vegas, seems to me to sum it up). The film clearly does not “work” as satisfying rounded entertainment, but the project has a sense of itself that almost fuels you.

His new film Full Frontal is intended as a quick, low-budget diversion from this run of success (and it precedes his big-budget science fiction film Solaris, due out in November). It has another amazing cast. Roberts plays a magazine writer carrying out an extended interview with up-and-coming actor Blair Underwood. Or rather, that’s what happens in a film within the film; they actually play actors. He’s having an affair with a frustrated executive (Catherine Keener) whose marriage to magazine journalist David Hyde-Pierce is breaking down. Keener’s sister is a massage therapist (Mary McCormack) who has an unsatisfying encounter with a film producer (David Duchovny) while pursuing a cyber-romance with a theater director (Enrico Colantoni) who’s directing a bizarre production about young Hitler starring an egotistical actor (Nicky Katt).

Attempts to connect

Soderbergh says his movies aren’t about surfaces, but rather about our attempts to connect (I have a feeling that lots of directors give something like this as a standard answer). You can see this for sure in his debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape, but since then the theme is only evident in glimpses. Full Frontal embraces it more fully – almost every scene depicts some kind of failure to engage; whether intellectual, emotional, spiritual or artistic. But this seems like an inevitable result of a movie that thrives on chaos, that feels as though it set its characters in almost random motion and then sat back to see what would happen.

That lackadaisical quality is central to Soderbergh’s intent here. He says: “You look at that Godard period of ’59 to ’67, and you admire his ability to sketch. And I think you can get too caught up in this idea that every movie you make has to be a mural. And I really felt like I’d been doing that, and I felt like I needed to afford myself the opportunity to sketch – where things aren’t, you know, so weighted by expectation or budget. It’s not that I view the movie as incidental. It’s just I liked the idea of having the freedom to write with the camera, in a way. And in an environment that seems safe, because of the scale of the project and the way it would be made. It’s a fun way to work; it’s an interesting way to work. It’s sort of an irresponsible way to work if you’re doing a movie on any other scale than this.”

Maureen Dowd in The New York Times dismissed the movie this way: “Just because something is grainy doesn’t mean it’s cooler. Just because it’s shot in 18 days with a hand-held camera that cost $4,000 doesn’t mean it’s more creative. Just because it’s a neo-Godardian deconstruction of cinematic reality doesn’t mean it’s more interesting. And just because it has an erotic title doesn’t mean it’s sexy.” All of which is self-evident (and to digress slightly, just because Dowd’s column has a hot reputation and a Pulitzer Price doesn’t mean it’s always good either). But there’s little evidence that Soderbergh believes any of these straw-man assertions. His faith seems more elemental than that. He believes in the inherent fascination of cinema – that raw ingredients need be subject only to the simplest of recipes to produce something sustaining. Depending how you look at it, this may either be a low or a high expectation of the audience.

Cinematic meaning

Most critics find Full Frontal confusing and arid. But the film is stuffed with intriguing scenes of conflicting expectations, self-delusion, lifestyle corrections and compromises. Sometimes it attempts to tap genuine emotion and frustration; sometimes it just plays at it. In general, the moments when it’s explicitly about filmmaking seem to me its least successful in that they only allow narrow readings. The rest of the movie is wildly discursive and evasive – the absurdity of the Hitler play rehearsals; some low comedy involving a dog overdosing on hash brownies; one-liners galore.

On a couple of occasions, Terence Stamp’s character from The Limey wanders through the movie – the intention being apparently to suggest that the action in both films takes place side by side. Which succeeds in suggesting the immense fluidity of cinema; how it takes only a brief allusion or connection to open up a whole new world of cinematic meaning. The problem is that this can easily become a process of mere recognition – you make the connection, and where does that leave you? It’s as if we’re expected to be excited by the fact that a guy can form sentences, regardless that they don’t tell us anything interesting. We’ve all seen so many films that we think we’re way beyond that. And yet those who know cinema best – Soderbergh, Godard, Figgis – are often the most fascinated by the raw material. Personally, I don’t think the rest of us know as much as we think. Could Full Frontal possibly be ahead of its time?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

My DVD collection

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2002)

Given my obvious enthusiasm for movies, it’s often been surprising to people that I haven’t built up an extensive video collection. Fact is, I never saw the point – there’s always too much new stuff to watch. Initially, I approached DVDs in the same way. But I’m gradually breaking down. Since I bought a DVD player about a year and a half ago, I’ve built up a collection of 43 years. I know this is peanuts by the standards of hardcore library builders – but since I never meant to buy any at all, it seems like a lot to me.

The first DVD I purchased was Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. I kept reading about the Criterion Collection and its pristine restorations and fascinating extras, and it had been a long time since I’d seen Grand Illusion, so I bought it as an experiment. Shortly after that, I bought Eyes Wide Shut, tempted by some kind of $10-off deal. I didn’t even think I liked Eyes Wide Shut, but I had a feeling it would repay further study (as it did). Soon after that, my wife gave me a Kubrick boxed set for Christmas. I’ve written before about how this opened my eyes to a director about whom I’d generally been lukewarm.

Taking inventory

Since then the collection has evolved in an idiosyncratic way that doesn’t yet represent the breadth of my taste, although it’s getting there. In addition to eight films by Stanley Kubrick, the 43 films contain three Cocteau, three Dreyer, four Rivette, two Bertolucci, two Herzog and two Spike Lee. It has a number of staples – Welles’ Citizen Kane, Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part One (haven’t got round to Part Two yet), Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tati’s Playtime, Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. With time there will surely be more than one Hawks (Rio Bravo), one Antonioni (L’Avventura) and one Hitchcock (The Birds). And I can’t imagine going too long without acquiring some Bresson, Cassavetes, and – unfortunately – all too many others.

Some of my favourite contemporary American films are in there too – Magnolia, Heat, Nashville. And I bought George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, of which I had excellent twenty-year-old memories – fully confirmed on rewatching. There’s also one film I wish I didn’t have – Lewis Teague’s Cujo. This was given to me as a gift, and I have no idea why. I think maybe the people saw The Shining on my DVD shelf and figured I was a Stephen King fan. I’m not saying Cujo is an altogether bad movie, but when I look at my alphabetized DVD shelf, casting my eye lovingly across the titles, it stands out as grotesquely as a porno flick. I’d like to move it to a different shelf, but that seems silly, so it just stays there.

None of this means that my original hypothesis was false. I’m still too occupied watching new stuff. Here’s the shameful statistic – as of today, I haven’t yet watched 12 out of the 43 disks. And there’s not a single one that I’ve watched twice. I’m confident that I’ll remedy this…but then I’ll probably buy more disks as well and the backlog will just accumulate. And how often would you need to watch a disk to really justify the economic investment – four, five times? This is exactly the kind of logic that successfully dissuaded me from buying videos. But it doesn’t seem as off-putting for disks.

Where’s the Pasolini?

That’s partly a feeling, based on analogizing to my experience with music cassettes versus CDs, that the videos would merely have crumbled slowly to dust on the shelf whereas the DVDs will last to the end of time. The visual appeal of the disks themselves and of their packaging undoubtedly helps. But I fear the sad truth is that having taken the first step, I just can’t stop now. If I never bought another DVD, the arbitrary point at which I cut off my collection would always gnaw at me. I mean, I’ve at least got to have Ugetsu Monogatari in there. And how can I have The Birds and not Vertigo. And shouldn’t there be at least one Godard, one Pasolini (we named our dog after him for Pete’s sake), one Fassbinder? And wouldn’t it be great to have a pristine version of The Band Wagon? At this point, getting to 100 films will be a cinch.

My impression is that much of the non-mainstream material available on DVD was never available on video, although I never really looked. I’ve written before at my amazement that the Rivette material is available. His are almost the only DVDs that I bought without previously having seen the films – I’d never had the opportunity to watch Joan of Arc or The Gang of Four or Secret Defense. After chasing down Rivette movies for years, it’s a huge thrill to me to have those titles just sitting at home, to watch whenever I like. I’d love to watch all those films again right now, if I didn’t have all this other stuff to catch up on.

My DVD collection has reinforced one thing I already knew about myself – it really is about the joy of watching the movie. I don’t think I’ve tapped even 2% of the bonus materials contained on these disks. I’ve listened to not one second of the voice-over commentaries. I’ve watched a few trailers, some deleted scenes (most interestingly on the Bamboozled disk), some oddities like Tippi Hedren’s screen test on The Birds disk. But this stuff quickly bores me. I guess I’ve never felt time was best spent in getting to know a particular movie in minute detail, when instead you could be exploring the uncharted area of a whole new film.

Staying at home

So what does this all mean? Well, I’ve always thought that the intangible nature of movie watching makes it slightly dissatisfying as a hobby. All you have is the memory. I think that’s why movie fans often seem to be into list-making, and maintaining scrapbooks, and otherwise giving their ethereal experiences some solid existence. Having a video or DVD collection fits right in with that, and now I’m there with all the other movie geeks. Secondly, if I’m ever banished to a desert island with nothing but a TV and a DVD player, I’m well on the way to making the sentence a little more palatable. And thirdly, I may yet live up to the possibilities of the investment I’ve made in my DVD shelf. The week I write this, eight new movies open in Toronto. I’m only going to one of them. Given how I just got this new disk of Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast, I don’t have the time…

(November 2015 update – well, that’s even more of a nostalgia read than usual. It all exploded from there: for example, I ended up with fifteen Ozu films, twenty-one Godards, and so forth. But then it died down, and I’ve hardly added to the collection at all in the past few years. Things moved on again!)

Monday, October 12, 2015

Doing it right

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2002)

Well into the new film Tadpole, the 15-year-old protagonist makes a move on his 40-something stepmother, played by Sigourney Weaver. When I saw the film, a man in the audience who’d so far been sitting quietly exploded in disgust: “Filthy pervert,” he spat out. Well, everyone has to draw the line somewhere, but that seemed to me a fairly arbitrary place to do it. Remember how Woody Allen answered the question of whether sex is dirty by saying it is if you do it right. Tadpole doesn’t seem very dirty, which in this case is a sign it’s not doing it right (with due apologies to the sensibility of the offended gentleman, whom I assume would dissent from this view).


It’s an American movie, set in New York’s Upper East Side, but it seems to wish it were French. The 15-year-old (nicely played by Aaron Sanford) is a Voltaire buff who speaks French whenever circumstances allow, and the approach of a civilized, quizzical attitude to mildly transgressive material evokes French directors like Truffaut and Malle.

A couple of days before I saw Tadpole, I was watching Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee at the Cinematheque – another film in which a middle-aged protagonist flirts with a teenager. I guess you could call that character a filthy pervert too, but Rohmer’s always been excellent at allowing his characters’ delusions about themselves to condition the audience’s sense of them. Anyway, nothing much happens in Rohmer’s film, physically speaking, and I doubt that many would think it dirty, but it’s quintessentially French. Tadpole’s instincts are a little broader and coarser than Rohmer’s (aren’t everyone’s?), but I think in many ways director Gary Winick would be delighted if his movie left the same kind of after-effect.

On the other hand, I recall that in Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, Rohmer was the recipient of Gene Hackman’s put-down about how watching his films is like watching paint dry. Delicacy is a tricky business. Tadpole lasts only 77 minutes – short enough to threaten its very commercial viability. Even at that length, the movie seems rather repetitive and occasionally strained. It does convey a certain intellectual prowess, but whereas in Rohmer’s movies the erudition is seeped into the celluloid, in Tadpole it seems like something pasted on. For example, the film contains “chapter headings,” taken mostly if not entirely from Voltaire I think, along the lines of: “Reason consists of always seeing things as they are,” and “If we don’t find anything pleasant, at least we shall find something new.” These all seemed to me either too obvious or else completely inscrutable.

Most puzzling of all, the movie has no ending. In Claire’s Knee, the ending serves as proof of Rohmer’s discernment. Tadpole reaches its inevitable decision point, and then fizzles completely. I said Tadpole doesn’t seem very dirty, but there’s one exception – the title itself – with its vague connotations of reproductive biology and vague double-entendre. Ultimately though, it’s the word’s squelchy immaturity that seems most relevant.

I should say that the movie seems American in one way at least – the vague sense of Wes Anderson around the edges. I’m gradually concluding that the director of Rushmore and Royal Tenenbaums is the most influential figure of his generation. At one point Sanford, finding out that Elvis had a teenage Elvis crush, makes himself a pair of fake sideburns out of dog hair. There’s a deadpan incongruity to the incident that seems inescapably Andersonian now.

Never Again

 I didn’t mean to suggest by the way that dirty equals good, although I do have a sneaking affection for the Carry On series (Benny Hill never did much for me though). If that were in doubt, there’s a bizarre new project called Never Again, which filters some of the raunchiest material in memory through the medium of…uh…esteemed actress Jill Clayburgh. In particular, she has one extended scene with a sex toy that…well, you’d have to see it for yourself. Or rather, you should take my word for it that you don’t need to see it for yourself.

Clayburgh plays a 54-year-old divorcee who hasn’t had sex in a decade and is desperate to turn that around. Jeffrey Tambor is a guy in the same boat, on such a sexual losing streak that he thinks he might be homosexual. They meet at a gay bar, start having hot sex while insisting they’ll avoid love. But hey, it ain’t so easy.

I swear I don’t have anything against 54-year-old people having sex (I hope to be in that situation myself one day). And Never Again’s unabashed randiness is a distinct improvement over the dreary pseudo-philosophizing of the recent vastly overpraised Innocence. But the movie feels fake and artificial, stuffed with elements you could basically have ticked off a checklist (Clayburgh’s college-age daughter catching them in the act; the life-threatening accident that befalls one of the two; the background chatter of Clayburgh’s like-minded group of friends). Although Michael McKean’s performance as a transsexual prostitute is beyond anyone’s imagination, even after you’ve seen it.

The film seems to think itself brave and daring, but that’s just another way of being evasive. It never shows us what the relationship consists of – we get the ups and downs and the sex, but none of the necessary stuff in between. And it has an extremely programmatic view of human relationships; would anyone analyze himself as being gay if he didn’t feel it? Maybe in your 50s you lose touch with yourself more than I can currently anticipate. Tambor is only marginally persuasive, but Clayburgh actually turns in a fine performance. Which in the circumstances may be even more impressive than her achievement in An Unmarried Woman.


Last year, there was a fair bit of hubbub about a film called Intimacy, which supposedly represents a step forward in straightforwardly depicting adult sexuality. I say supposedly because I haven’t seen it – it wasn’t at last year’s festival and it hasn’t opened commercially here. Apparently no distributor was interested in it (the video/DVD release must be imminent). I don’t want to over-analyze one economic decision, but it seems that English-language movies are still doing everything possible with the subject of sex, except staring at it straight on.

Foreign movies avoid this – take for example the recent Israeli film Late Marriage. But on the whole, whether you’re 15 and doing it with a 40-year-old or whether you’re a hot-blooded 54-year-old doing it with a contemporary, you’re not likely to find much of a mirror in the movies. However, if you’re a 54-year-old male who’s had some work done, doing it with a 25-year-old model in a soft-focus world….

Monday, October 5, 2015

Hollow package

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2002)

Although I couldn’t make the slightest guess about the recipients of next year’s Oscars, I think I already know what the year’s most overrated film will be. Not that everyone’s fallen for Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition. Stephanie Zacharek’s review on, for instance, could hardly have been more disinterested (“Over and over again, Mendes confuses gracefulness with tastefulness: He loads up on the latter, not realizing that a great movie is a kind of dance, not a perfectly executed dinner party”). But the consensus is that the film is a major event, a front runner for next year’s awards, an example of Hollywood craftsmanship at its finest.

Oscars beget Oscars

This partly tells us that Oscars are expected to beget Oscars – Mendes won for his debut film American Beauty, and Perdition has two former Best Actors – Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. I dealt with American Beauty in this space at the time of the 1999 film festival, where it won the people’s choice award. I wrote a complimentary review of it, which with hindsight was a bit of an autopilot job – the pace of the festival gets to you after a while. But I didn’t list it among my favourite films of the festival, and I was never sure I really understood what was so hot about it. I meant to go back a second time and reconsider, but it’s never seemed like a good enough use of two hours. Since then, the film’s dwindled in my memory.

I’m sure about Road to Perdition though – sure that it’s a good looking package with nothing inside. For sure, it’s “well made” in the way we understand that term: you feel that everyone involved went about their business as though repainting the Sistine Chapel. The problem is in the inherent quality of the material. Road to Perdition is thin, trashy stuff, but belaboring under the notion that it’s floating free of the pulp in which it was born, that artistry and sensitivity have provided it a cushion of air.

Hanks (who’s duller here than he’s ever been) plays a hired gun for crime boss Newman (effortlessly charismatic, just as I’m sure he is when fast asleep). Hanks hides his occupation beneath a respectable wife-and-two-children veneer (Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the wife, wasted in a bizarrely blank role, although her casting suggests a personal history wilder than anything the movie wants to explore). Curious about his father’s occupation, the oldest kid hides in the back of the car one night and witnesses a hit. Hanks assures Newman there’s nothing to fear, but Newman’s son doesn’t trust him, and shoots dead Leigh and the youngest boy. Hanks and the surviving kid take off, pursued by the mob.

With integrity

From then on it’s an odyssey of narrow escapes, double-crosses and showdowns. The film’s claim to significance lies in two intertwined strands. First, this supposedly isn’t a film that glorifies violence or uses it unthinkingly – rather, it’s a film that understands violence and its effect on those that commit it. A recent dubiously kiss-ass New York Times profile of Mendes summed this up as such: “Mendes cast Tom Hanks against type as a gangster, but he is a bad guy on a heroic mission to avenge his wife and child’s murder, and his acts of violence are understandable. He is a religious man, and his acts of killing carry the weight of sin. This makes him sympathetic and allows Mendes to approach the theme of violence with integrity.”

Ah, integrity. I read that sentence several times, wondering what it means, before concluding it means next to nothing. David Edelstein in Slate dismissed the film, evoking Charles Bronson and calling it “a by-the-numbers vigilante flick that comes with a handy anti-violence message – delivered with perfect timing, after the bad guys have been blown away.” That seems right to me.

But the movie is unusually restrained about rubbing our noses in gore – the killings mostly happen off-screen. In the closing stretch, the voice-over tells us that Hanks’ driving ambition has been to save his son from such an intimate relationship with death. The staging of the final scenes is deliberately otherworldly, as though the characters had slipped to an anteroom of the next life to await Judgment. But gimme a break. We’ve already had a vastly disproportionate number of would-be serious movies about hit men, each of which comes packaged with some dutiful soundbites from its director about how (unlike all those other hit men movies) it digs deeper, revealing a chiller truth that evaded us among the gleeful massacres of its predecessors.

Mendes may deserve some meagre credit for avoiding bloodshed, but it only makes his movie look like something that’s been pre-edited for airline viewing. At the end of the day, this is the same old crap that Hollywood’s been peddling for seventy years, and it would have taken more than an unusually tasteful lighting design to hide that.


The film’s second claim to significance lies in its musings on fatherhood. Here’s The New York Times again: “Though death pervades Perdition, the mounting tragedies have an oddly salutary effect; aligned against common enemies, Hanks and his son are drawn closer together. It’s a brilliant stroke of audience manipulation. ‘This is a very forgiving movie toward fathers,” Mendes admits. ‘As a child, I never really felt I knew my father. His life was a secret to me. It’s no coincidence that Road to Perdition is about a son who’s brought close to his father when he finds out the secret about him.’”

And Hanks is Newman’s symbolic son, and must build a relationship with his own son, who in terms of emotional intelligence may be the real father, and you can stir in more of the same. But this is all even more trivial than the film’s commentary on violence. The movie sets out the theme (for example, in a scene of Hanks and Newman wordlessly playing a piano duet together) but can’t make us feel it. Its stately rhythm denies human truth at every turn. There’s no time to feel the grief at the death of the wife and younger brother, no time to explore the depth of the boy’s guilt. Even the supposed key element – the growing relationship between Hanks and the kid – remains opaque.

I’ve been quoting here from the negative reviews, but there are plenty of positive ones to offset them. As I say, Road to Perdition has a handsome surface. But to quote the tagline from American Beauty: Look closer.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Seizing the moment

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2002)

Unless you’re Steven Soderbergh, who seems to work at a pace unknown to Hollywood since the 1930’s heyday of “One Take Woody” Van Dyke, well over a year passes from when a movie starts shooting to when it hits the screen. How many times has it been pointed out to us recently, in mitigation of potential allegations of tastelessness, that a particular release (Bad Company, Big Trouble, Collateral Damage, The Sum of all Fears) was filmed pre-September 11 (back when, of course, bad taste and exploitation used to be OK)? With that in mind, here are two current releases that may only seem to have their fingers on a current pulse.

Minority Report

Steven Spielberg’s second attempt to make a more adult summer sci-fi blockbuster clearly works better than AI did. The movie has pace and consistency and barely puts a foot wrong, dramatically speaking. Tom Cruise plays a cop in Washington of 2054, a star of the feted “Pre-Crime” unit. Aided by three young adults with pre-cognitive powers, Pre-Crime detects crimes before they happen, prevents them, and places the would-be perpetrators in suspended animation. This is so successful that as the movie opens, Washington hasn’t had a single murder in six years, but ethical and moral qualms hold up national acceptance of the program.

The movie’s intellectual heights come very early on, as it debates the pre-crime program’s religious undertones (the set design rather overplays this parallel), and mulls over the ethics of putting people away when they haven’t actually done anything (what if the pre-cogs made a mistake?). Reviewers have noted the affinity with current debates over profiling and detention of terrorist suspects and other post-September 11 civil liberties issues. This is why I call the film lucky on the timing.

But it quickly leaves reflection behind. Cruise steps up one day to the next murder, 36 hours in the future, and finds himself fingered as the killer. Convinced of his own innocence and suspecting a frame-up, he goes on the run. The movie is a superb chase thriller, with enormous fluidity and imagination. The attention to detail is awesome, fully reminding you of Spielberg’s expansive talent. He supposedly convened a seminar of experts in various fields, probing in detail where the next fifty years might take us in various areas. Truth be told though, the end results of this research are a little confusing. Clothes, home furnishings and general attitudes are only slightly different from the present day, whereas transportation and all the technology attending the Pre-Crime program seem transformed beyond recognition. A Kubrick would have persuaded us of what we’re looking at, but Minority Report leaves it feeling a bit arbitrary.

Creative Struggle

It’s also disappointing that the film becomes more and more a conventional conspiracy thriller. Ultimately the ulterior motives of a conventional villain crowd out any more serious consideration of issues. True, the narrative retains a fluidity and imagination that’s on another dimension from normal thriller plotting. And the movie is crammed with surprises – a wonderfully sleazy sequence with a decrepit eye doctor, casual glimpses of highly convincing bits of future technology (like advertising posters that, operating via retina recognition, address you by name as you walk past), fine acting all around.

Not for the first time though, Spielberg’s immense facility threatens to smother his characters. That might not have been inappropriate for a future in which individuality is suspect. And yet, the film ends with an affirmation of the family, of fatherhood, of human connection. The film seems to be trying to flesh out Cruise’s character, but the motivations provided to him are so prosaic that he remains blandly functional.

In a certain way, the messiness (if not occasional sheer lunacy) of AI (on top of all the pre-release hype about Stanley Kubrick’s influence) made it more interesting than Minority Report to think about afterwards. AI’s episodic, bumpy structure at least seemed to allude to some kind of creative struggle, whereas Minority Report feels like it comes too easily. There’s a sequence in which Cruise steers a captured pre-cog through the mall, and with second sight spilling from her in all directions, she brilliantly steers him away from his pursuers. The choreography is wonderful, but it’s a very abstract kind of dance – so casual that it almost alienates you. But maybe it’s best that the film lives on the surface of things, given what it tells us of the dangers of digging beneath them.

Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys

The second film is Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, and I assume the title provides enough explanation of why this movie could be considered topical. The film follows two teenage boys attending a Catholic school, where they channel their cynicism about the institution and the dogma into generating a lurid comic book – the pinched-faced nun/teacher played by Jodie Foster is transformed into a motorbike-riding “Nunzilla.” The film presents this imagined alternative world in splashy animated sequences that break up and vaguely parallel the live-action story.

One of the boys works on dramatic diversions from humdrum life such as cutting down telegraph polls, stealing a statue of the school’s patron saint, and kidnapping a cougar from a local zoo. The other falls tentatively in love with a girl whose problems run deeper than his shallow sense of victimhood can comprehend. A lot of it is familiar stuff for sure. But this film yields many surprises too. Foster’s character seems shallow and under-written for a while, but you slowly realize the depth of her belief and her accompanying agonies. Jena Malone, as the girl, is sublimely complex. And the film has a shocking climax, even if the few epilogue scenes water down the closing impression too much.

As for the much-documented dangerous lives of real altar boys, the film isn’t at all about corrupt priests. It actually only has one priest, an easy-going chain-smoking Vincent D’Onofrio. For a while you wonder whether his conviviality will be revealed as a sick sham, but it’s comforting that it isn’t. He’s just a guy with some colour round the edges. The film doesn’t talk at all about priestly scandals – actually, the title is more lurid than the film deserves. The cartoon sequences definitely mix things up a bit, but are basically pretty expendable. The impact of the film is in its quieter moments, even if you rather doubt that the movie itself quite appreciates this. This is a bit of a minority report, critically speaking, but I found Dangerous Lives more stimulating and thought-provoking than Spielberg’s film.