Monday, June 13, 2016

Con games

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2003)

James Mangold’s career path seems clear – every film he directs is less interesting than the one before: Heavy, Copland, Girl Interrupted, Kate and Leopold and now Identity. If you looked at those five films, and didn’t know who made them, I doubt you’d ever suspect a connection – it’s a true challenge for the auteur theory. But the last two films have at least one obvious thing in common: the guy seems too good for this material.


Kate and Leopold – the Meg Ryan/Hugh Jackman comedy about a nobleman who’s transported from the last century into modern-day Manhattan – sums it up. The premise is obviously dumb, but if you get past that, it allows a swooning feminine fantasy about old-fashioned love – about men who cook dinner for you and respect your honour and who are so attractive that no one would question your giving it all up for them. Jackman was up to the task of embodying all this, but the movie always seemed to be holding back, to be dawdling, fussing over practicalities. OK, Max Ophuls isn’t around anymore, but still, how could you give a movie like that to an essentially rational director – one who’s never shown any sign of losing his head?

Identity raises a similar issue of directorial miscasting. It’s a nutty, overweight movie that might have paid off if a passionate flake had made it. It’s a dark and stormy night, and a motley group of strangers ends up at a low-grade hotel. One of them gets knocked off, then another. It seems clear who the culprit is, but then he’s killed too. And then they start to die in ways that no one could possibly have planned…

At this point I was genuinely intrigued by the movie, because I couldn’t imagine how it’d ever explain all this. Well, I won’t give away the surprise, but suffice to say it’s a big cheat – a variation on the “it was all a dream” technique of stepping outside the plot and redefining the parameters of everything you’ve been watching. Yes, another one of those.

Meta movies

You can’t get away from these movies now: The Matrix (the apex of the form), Open your Eyes and its remake Vanilla Sky, The Others. M. Night Shyamalan seems to be building an entire career on such films. I bought into the admiration for The Sixth Sense. But Unbreakable was severely silly, and Signs was an exercise of such pretentious self-regard that I actually ended up actively hating the director for a while. And yet, plenty of people thought it a great movie, even an important one.

Given the sheer volumes, there must be something about these times that makes such devices particularly appealing and resonant. Maybe it’s the natural expression of spiritual beliefs in an age when organized religion is generally less appealing – just the idea of there being something beyond all this is so necessary that it barely matters what that something is. Maybe it’s a reflection of our ironic distance and self-reflection – we’re so distrusting of the surface of anything that we’re suckers for anarchic reinterpretation. Maybe it’s a measure of a spreading dissociative quality in our thinking. Intellectual pursuits are for the elite, so let them sweat away at the linear narratives; let them struggle over their psychological motivations and thematic structures – the rest of us zigzag and bop and weave.

The Matrix supported all of those explanations, and others, and the coming sequels will probably extend its scope further. But Identity has nothing beyond the thing itself. It’s inept as drama, because once the revelation has been logged, there’s no possible reason to care about some of the remaining plot strands. And like many of its cousins, the revelation hardly amounts to anything more than bookkeeping. So now we know the secret – and the way that’s enriched our lives from where we were two hours earlier is…what?


Opening the same day as Identity, James Foley’s Confidence represents a more earthbound paradigm. Edward Burns plays a con man who puts together a big job for local crime boss Dustin Hoffman; Andy Garcia and Rachel Weisz are in the cast too. No less than Identity, the movie has twists and turns and people not being who you thought they were and events not being what they seem. The difference is that in Confidence, this is nothing to do with other levels of reality or suchlike – it’s all a reflection of master con men at work.

Although this is a more organic form of plotting, such moves generally end up seeming just about as abstract as the likes of Identity. The con always proceeds more impeccably than anything you ever observe in the real world. The con artist perfectly anticipates his victims’ reactions – even when they think they’ve got the upper hand on him, they’re mainly playing out a narrative that will ultimately lead right where he wants it. It’s an inherently cold, dehumanizing genre – Ocean’s Eleven, a recent exemplar, might be the least viscerally engaging hit movie of the last few years.

Ironically (or perhaps necessarily), the genre is populated by colourful characters – Hoffman in Confidence being the latest addition to the gallery of eccentric rogues. These people often seem too volatile and impulsive to justify the con artist’s confidence in how they’ll behave. Confidence seems to delight in human diversity and possibility on one level, but in substance it oozes contempt, because no matter who they are, whatever their achievements and possibilities are, they’ll always end up right where the artist wants them.

That’s not a bad metaphor for a certain deterministic view of the world, of course. David Mamet, no intellectual lightweight, keeps returning to such material, yet each of his efforts in the genre seems less like his work than the last. I think directors frequently imagine they can transcend the form, only to find the structure heavier than they’d anticipated. Neil Jordan, in the recent The Good Thief, did fairly well at avoiding this trap, although his movie seemed to me less distinctive than it did to others.

Still, Confidence is probably a better film than Identity overall. Foley (who also directed Glengarry Glen Ross) is a pro director. The film requires a certain volume of flashbacks and other trickery, but it avoids the visual gimmickry that overwhelms Mangold.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Low comedy

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2003)

I like the idea of taking the elements of low comedy – toilet humour, doubles entendres, and so forth – and raising them to the level of art. In recent years, the Farrelly brothers attracted a fair bit of critical approval, particularly for There’s Something About Mary (I didn’t get it). And some serious critics held American Pie in very high regard (I can just about see that). But if you really want to talk about this, I’d start with Blake Edwards. At one time, I thought Edwards was one of the best American directors of his time. Nowadays, I’d say he’s better than most people realize, but that isn’t quite the same thing. Most people acknowledge the gentle charm of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or the surprising rawness of Days of Wine and Roses. And the Pink Panther movies were big business in their day, although I’m not sure they got enough attention for their formal rigour – a quality which admittedly fell off sharply later in the series.

Blake Edwards

Remember how, after Peter Sellers died, Edwards put together a whole film (Trail of the Pink Panther) out of discarded material and new linking bits, after which he made Curse of… with a new lead character, and later again Son of… with Roberto Benigni. Some see this as merely desperate, but it seems to me to go beyond that, into what might be regarded as a pseudo-scientific examination of desperation, of the repetition and patterning that’s always marked his comedy. But I acknowledge that I could be giving him too much credit here – after all, at the same (declining) stage in his career, he recycled Victor/Victoria into a not-particularly-successful Broadway musical.

His two masterpieces (OK, that’s a relative term too) are 10 and S.O.B., two brittle and often bitter examinations of aging in Hollywood. In Bo Derek, 10 had Edwards’ best ever gimmick, and Dudley Moore temporarily caught the popular imagination, but the movie is consistently rueful, if not depressing, and it captures a certain type of self-indulgent maleness very well. S.O.B. was ever darker – notionally a wacky farce, populated almost entirely by old, unhappy people. Julie Andrews baring her breasts provided another (although not quite as compelling) audience-grabber, but the heart of the film was William Holden as a director who’d sold his soul almost completely, and yet managed to retain a notion of gritty integrity that somehow hung intact through the movie. It’s yet another wonderful Edwards ambiguity – almost the ultimate biting of the hand that fed him.

Peter Segal, director of the new comedy Anger Management, is no Blake Edwards. Specifically, his film has no visual style at all, and no attitude. And very few good lines. I think I only laughed at some silly euphemisms for sexual activity, but that just tells you something about me. This is a typically ill-considered, barely controlled Hollywood package, seemingly built around a single concept: that Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson would be in the same movie. Which is not a bad concept, but it doesn’t take you very far either.

Anger Management

The surprise is that much of the movie’s interest would come not from Nicholson, but from Sandler. But to address Nicholson first – the movie is obviously a conscious relaxation for him, after The Pledge and About Schmidt. Critics praised him (excessively, in my view) for how he kept his usual mannerisms under wraps in Schmidt, but here he lets them all tumble out. You name your favourite Nicholson moment – it’s evoked here at some point. Somehow it all manages to seem more weighty and respectable than Robert de Niro’s recent exercises in self-parody, but that’s yet another relative assessment. Presumably the whole thing carries the significance for Nicholson of a trip to the Oscars; sprawled out in his front row seat, mugging for the camera and getting treated like a king.

It’s hard to think of an actor being handed a greater gift than Sandler was with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. The movie had almost no purpose other than to rehabilitate Sandler; to show how his shtick masked his warmth and complexity. The whole movie, more or less, served as a visualization of Sandler’s passive-aggressive confusion. At the time, I didn’t really know what to make of it – it was obviously accomplished, but on some level seemed just nutty.

But now, Anger Management finally proves the success of Anderson’s film, because Sandler just doesn’t seem the same to me anymore. He plays a nervous executive assistant, put-upon and under-rewarded at work, stifled in his relationship with girlfriend Marisa Tomei by various hang-ups. A stupid misunderstanding with a flight attendant gets him sentenced to anger management therapy. Nicholson plays the doctor who, of course, is crazier than the patient. He leads Sandler through various supposedly therapeutic misadventures, winding up with a splashy finale in Yankee Stadium (with guest star Rudolph Giuliani).

Saved by Sandler

The joke is that Sandler doesn’t need anger management, but he sure needs something. Nicholson’s misaligned treatments, stamping all over every aspect of Sandler’s life, only makes him angrier, thus prolonging the sentence and digging him a deeper hole. It’s a conventional tale of escalating disaster, but Sandler never seemed to me like merely the suffering fool. He avoids the over the top outbursts of his pre-Punch Drunk persona, all but embodying the straight man to Nicholson’s antics. The much remarked upon “sweetness” of Anderson’s film is back too. But most interesting is the ambiguity he projects regarding his true mental state – a quality that frequently suggests there’s more to the movie than meets the eye.

As it turns out, there sort of is – an ending that attempts to put another twist on everything we’ve seen. It’s utterly feeble – the ultimate proof of the film’s vacuousness. The only other thing of interest is the movie’s faint attempt to tap into contemporary paranoia – it has a few references to these being “difficult times,” and the Yankee Stadium climax, with that guest star, certainly comes across as an exercise in reassurance. The movie could easily have extended this line of inquiry, setting up Sandler as a funnel for contemporary jitteriness, but that’s more than it has in mind.

In fact, the film’s ultimately the most complacent kind of backslap to the audience – the kind of movie that assumes that if the cast is having fun, then so will we. Another assumption it makes: there can’t be any better entertainment than watching celebrities goofing around, so just about every supporting role is filled by a “name” – Heather Graham, Woody Harrelson, John Turturro. It’s like watching a particularly demeaning episode of Celebrity Fear Factor.

Still, it’s the kind of movie that at least has interesting flaws, and then there’s Sandler. It’s maybe a quarter of the way to being an intelligent dumb comedy.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

An off week

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2003)

Three new movies to write about this week, all exciting prospects that turned out to be disappointments.

Assassination Tango

Robert Duvall wrote and directed Assassination Tango, and stars in it as a New York hit man sent on a job to Argentina. Cooling his heels for a few weeks, he becomes enchanted by the local tango bars, especially a young dancer played by Luciana Pedrazi, who is Duvall’s offscreen girlfriend. This is just one of the ways in which the film seems like a vanity project. Duvall’s last film behind the camera, The Apostle, was rambling and untidy, but had a persuasive sense of sociological investigation mixed in with some genuine mystery. Assassination Tango employs the same semi-documentary feel, but the film has nothing to reveal – it’s not scrupulous enough to tell us very much about the tango, and the surrounding plot is just run of the mill. Duvall himself gives a self-indulgent, off-putting performance, apparently trying to evoke a John Cassavetes-like volatility. Indeed, this film has been compared in some quarters to Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Well, Cassavetes’ name still seems to crop up regularly as a reference point in movie reviews, and the best I can say is – I can recall occasions when the comparison was even less justified than it is here. But not by a whole lot.

In Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon, Frances McDormand plays a free-spirited LA record producer whose buttoned-up son (Christian Bale) comes to stay for a while with his scholarly girlfriend (Kate Beckinsale). While Bale’s at work in a local hospital, Beckinsale tries to stay in her room and work on her dissertation, but gradually spends more and more time hanging out downstairs, where McDormand and her much younger rock musician lover are making an album (or, just as often, doing the sex and drugs thing). I’m not sure the general theme – reversal of generational expectations – is so far removed from an episode of Family Ties; the movie certainly consistently fails to establish much distinctive territory for itself.

Laurel Canyon

In the weeks before its release, I kept running into profiles of Frances McDormand (including in such prestigious publications as The New Yorker and New York Times Magazine), all of which made a lot out of her topless scenes in Laurel Canyon, and of the general notion of this respected middle-aged actress playing a loose hippie type. Predictably, she’s been singled out for praise in every review of the film. But it seems to me by now that this is basically what McDormand does, just like Clint Eastwood does what he does. With her mix of flintiness, relish, vulnerability, engagement, provocation, not-too-obvious sexiness – she almost embodies what most critics look for in a movie. The ultimate symbol of this is that Joel Coen, half of perhaps the most critically admired post-Scorsese filmmaking team, fell in love with McDormand and married her.

Anyway, I can’t see that McDormand does anything very interesting in the movie, which may be a happy impression if it means we’re now past the point where the idea of middle-aged sexuality is inherently fascinating. I was more intrigued by Natascha McElhone, who plays a colleague of Bale’s at the hospital. McElhone’s wide eyes and broad features verge of caricature (although I’m not sure of what) and in this film she adopts a foreign accent (Israeli, I think she said) that makes her seem even more disconnected from reality. But she and Bale have a long conversation in a parking lot that’s sexy, unexpected, and astonishing in its range of moods and implications. For at least that long, Cholodenko seems to be tapping into a potentially rich vein. But then it’s back to more dreary late night stuff in hotel rooms, and the movie just trails away, although it does have a moderately diverting final scene.

Talking of dreary late night stuff, this year’s Oscars were surprisingly un-dreary, and didn’t even run that late. More importantly, the list of winners was too good to be imaginable: Roman Polanski, Adrien Brody, Pedro Almodovar, Bowling for Columbine, Spirited Away, Eminem’s win for best song. These all seemed to assert the ascendancy of a new majority far less likely to be swayed by the mediocre calculations and prejudices that we’re told habitually influence the results of these things. (By the way, I came out on top of my office pool again, although only in a year of so many surprises could 6 out of 12 have been a winning score).

A few categories slightly failed to keep pace with the wave of change, such as the best picture Oscar for Chicago and the foreign language film award to Nowhere in Africa. I doubt whether anyone thinks this German entry is truly the best of the year, but the convoluted process for determining the nominees doesn’t always allow quality to rise to the top. Nowhere in Africa may have been a respectable choice from among the five nominees they ended up with. That aside though, it’s a safe middlebrow kind of movie.

Nowhere in Africa

It’s a cousin to Polanski’s The Pianist in that it depicts a Jewish family (husband and wife and young daughter) that takes a route to survival (to Kenya), and the portrayal of their struggle seeks to inform our perspective on the Holocaust. In this case though, the film’s situation is more self-contained; the horrors in Europe occasionally intrude, but for the most part you watch the movie as an extended anecdote that could be taking place almost any time. Of course, this is partly the point, to convey Africa’s unique identity – and the film does that quite well. But that’s not a particularly bracing artistic achievement.

The film’s most intriguing element is the portrayal of the mother, initially a reluctant visitor to Africa, who quickly tires of her husband, has at least one affair, is seen lustily initiating sex on several occasions, and in the end grows to love the country more than he does. She’s the only character who seems to spill beyond the frame.

Unfortunately, the film is told primarily through the girl’s eyes, and thus generally follows a simpler course, missing potential themes all over the place. For example, it makes little of the fact that these refugees, with no experience working the land, can fairly easily find a job as farm supervisors, to be addressed as “bwana” and lord it over dozens of locals. I’m not saying the film specifically needed to be anti-colonial, but it’s hard now to watch a work about Africa’s past that appears to lack awareness of its present.

And then I saw Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief, and I was disappointed in that too. Maybe it’s not them – maybe it’s me. Well, I don’t really think so…