(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2002)
Last week I wrote about the difficulties of getting one’s money’s worth out of a DVD collection, given that the new movies keep on coming. Here’s more evidence: seven mini-reviews (count em!)
Readers may remember an article, a few years ago, in which I put together a fictional list of directors that might have won the Nobel Prize for cinema, if such a thing existed. My 1996 winner was China’s Zhang Yimou, a choice that now makes my imaginary committee look severely impulsive. Since then, Zhang has made various small-scale films that bear the limitations of trying to work within the Chinese State system, and he’s seemed increasingly sentimental. His latest marks a further regression, back to the emotional values and overall sophistication of, well, the silent era. A bachelor in his 50s sets out to get married, but instead ends up taking care of a blind girl who’s been mistreated for most of her life. Having lied about his resources and status, he creates a series of illusions to hide the truth from her. The movie’s main point of distinction is its highly contingent happy ending. It’s not that the film’s bad exactly – it’s just awfully minor and unambitious. I might not have minded it at all, if I hadn’t kept kicking myself for letting my Nobel jurists lose their heads over his earlier work.
John Sayles’ cross-section of small-town Florida life seems less accomplished than earlier films of his like Limbo, Lone Star or City of Hope, which executed similarly ambitious exercises in Alaska, Texas and New Jersey respectively. Having said that, Sayles seems on this evidence to consider Florida a less accomplished place – a blandly low-input and low-return would-be paradise where sterile design destroys all sense of history, place and community. The film follows four or five main plot strands, although nothing tops the brief glimpses of a local dignitary’s compulsive suicide attempts. The film peters out more than it actually ends, but that seems like Sayles’ final comment on the state – where he sealed off his Alaskan movie Limbo with a grand metaphysical flourish, he lets his Florida movie fizzle and dissipate. Sunshine State also contains a hearty dollop of what seems pretty much like standard melodrama; it’s always been Sayles’ oddity that he insists on his integrity as an independent filmmaker, who then makes movies the greater part of which could fit quite comfortably into the mainstream.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding
A bit fat box-office hit, which does as much as any bland action blockbuster to show how undemanding audiences can be. I didn’t register a single original joke or observation in this compendium of clichés and platitudes about the travails of an ethnic family (you’ve seen the same thing done with Jewish weddings, and Italian weddings, and gay weddings…) Familiar Toronto locations (subbing for Chicago) and faces make it even less convincing for local audiences. Nothing in the movie is quite right – lead actor John Corbett overdoes the laid-back charm, and lead actress and writer Nia Vardalos overdoes her initial frumpiness and thereafter underdoes whatever quality is supposed to have snared Corbett. And after plodding through the build-up to the wedding, the event itself is over almost before it’s begun. Maybe if I were Greek it would have seemed like a masterpiece of observation, although I have a Greek friend, and she sure doesn’t act that way.
At the time of writing I haven’t actually seen the end of this film. With no more than ten minutes to go, the Varsity projector broke down and they couldn’t get it back up. Still, I saw enough to know that The Believer is a near-must see. An astonishing creation about a Jew who embraces Nazism, the film is the most articulate of the year, and one of the most subtly perverse: the character’s escalating violence and radicalism coexist with a longing to reimmerse himself in Judaism. Ryan Gosling gives a fine, fiery performance in the title role. The film is sometimes too cluttered, and events take place on such a melodramatic scale that they threaten to swamp the character, but the worst never happens (not up to the last ten minutes anyway).
SignsIt’s a hit, and some think that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan is the next Spielberg, but I found this film dreary, shallow, and unremittingly pretentious. Its central notion about faith and predestination is inherently no more than earnest in a first-year philosophy student kind of way, but Shyamalan’s genius is to set this against the backdrop of an alien invasion of Earth, thus ensuring goofiness just one notch short of Edward D. Wood. And the sillier the thing gets, the more seriously it seems to take itself. Mel Gibson’s solemnity fits right in with the prevailing gravity. As for the Spielberg comparison, I’m not among the greatest aficionados of Minority Report, but that film outclasses this one by every worthwhile criterion. By the end of this preachy, self-regarding farrago, I started to dislike Shyamalan personally.
Clint Eastwood’s new film, on the other hand, is a model of self-effacement. This thriller about a retired cop who investigates a woman’s murder (while carrying her donated heart in his chest) has a pretty intricate plot, but lets it unwind with so little emphasis and elaboration that you could almost miss it. This lets some potentially interesting elements go floating away, but leaves behind something most intriguing – a tersely written and shot procedural that nevertheless feels like a character piece. The trouble is that the characters are distinctly sleepy. As recent Eastwood movies go, Blood Work is more unified than Absolute Power or True Crime, although the zest of James Woods in the latter would have given the new film a welcome shot in the arm.