(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.
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.
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…