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.

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