Thursday, September 29, 2016

Two greats

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2003)

Compared to a lot of movie reviewers, I think I spend relatively little time writing about actors. For sure, there are exceptions – you can’t review About Schmidt without writing at length about Jack Nicholson. But I used up my word quota on Spider without saying a word about Ralph Fiennes, and I don’t think many reviewers did that. So today, to remedy the balance a bit, let’s just chew the fat about two of the greats.

When I was getting excited about movies in the early 80s, two actors seemed preeminent: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Both were still in their first decade of stardom; they were smoldering and reclusive and unknowable and they made movies sparingly, so that fans suffered a long frustrating wait between projects. They were clearly mature actors who made hard-edged adult projects – if you were under 18, you were probably sneaking into the theaters.

Ups and downs

De Niro worked mainly with Martin Scorsese and was already legendary for his preparation – particularly how he gorged himself to play the fat Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. He was regarded as an insolent chameleon, although people tended to overlook how he was already relying on certain mannerisms. Pacino seemed somehow more wounded and less molded – his characters were usually essentially tragic, and with the failed Bobby Deerfield he’d shown a rather bleak romantic streak. Whereas De Niro’s absences from the screen seemed attributable to deliberation, Pacino’s were rooted more in a kind of desperation.

Thirty-year careers obviously have their ups and downs, and when I was first focusing in, both stars’ status seemed in some danger of eroding. Pacino seemed unsure of his direction – Author Author, Scarface, Revolution – and then entered a four year silence. De Niro’s films were usually commercial failures despite their critical standing, and with his cameos in Angel Heart and The Untouchables he seemed to be slipping into smaller roles.

In 1998 De Niro made Midnight Run, at the time a remarkably straightforward film for him. I thought he was amazing in it – every gesture, every expression was perfectly calibrated, creating a complex character who was also utterly stylized. I went four times at least, and watched it subsequently as many times on video (when you’re young, you tend to overreact to certain things). I saw the movie again last year and I still think it’s a kind of masterpiece – a film with a unique worldview both whimsically abstract and wearily abrasive. And De Niro is amazing in it.

De Niro then started to make movies at an unprecedented pace, including numerous projects (Stanley and Iris, Jacknife, We’re no Angels) that surely wouldn’t have made the cut for him a few years earlier. Meanwhile, Pacino returned with Sea of Love. I still remember how excited I was about that. The movie was pretty straightforward material, but Pacino was completely magnetic in it – transforming entire scenes with his inventive, laconic charisma. Apparently reenergized, he quickly followed up with another Godfather film, a goofy cameo in Dick Tracy and, within a few years, an Oscar for Scent of a Woman (De Niro already had two, for The Godfather Part Two and Raging Bull).

The mellow years

Some time after that, I failed to hang on their careers with the same zeal. They both started to make the odd film I considered missable. Including projects yet to be released, the Internet Movie Database lists 12 films for De Niro from 2000 onwards, and 7 for Pacino. That’s the kind of pace associated with work horses rather than Method geniuses. With his hit comedies Analyze This and Meet the Parents, De Niro scored his greatest commercial successes ever. And people started to discern a pattern in Pacino’s career where he played the charismatic mentor to younger men in indifferent films – Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco, Colin Farrell in The Recruit, Keanu Reeves in The Devil’s Advocate.

They’ve both become more accessible in other ways too – turning up on award shows, or on Letterman, or in De Niro’s case even hosting Saturday Night Live (and apparently not having much fun). In Pacino’s case this accessibility seems like evidence of someone who’s finally comfortable in his own skin; who’s found a way to feel true to himself without drowning in angst. Even when his movies aren’t the strongest, it’s easy to see what drew him to them. The Recruit, for instance, is a run of the mill thriller, but his performance in it is amazingly inventive. He was just as great in S1m0ne, and even better in People I Know. In the meantime, he’s stepped up his stage activity – doing Bertold Brecht in Brooklyn last year and this year on Broadway in Oscar Wilde’s Salome.

But De Niro’s career has become inexplicable. My impetus to write this article came after I caught up with Showtime, the movie he made last year with Eddie Murphy. The movie isn’t so much bad as utterly valueless. It gives De Niro nothing to do that could possibly interest a great actor, and he merely seems to be drifting. His presence there is inexplicable. His recent movies like City by the Sea, The Score, 15 Minutes, Ronin – some of them are better than others, but none are worthy of the actor he was in the 70’s. But it’s not the material that’s so depressing – it’s De Niro’s increasing capitulation to it. I’ve sometimes wondered if this isn’t what appeals to him – to become as self-effacing as possible. Except that in other movies, such as The Adventure of Rocky and Bullwinkle, he seems involved solely because of a bizarre desire for self-parody.


In all the above, I’ve conspicuously failed to mention Heat, Michael Mann’s 1995 film in which the two, for the first and so far only time, shared the screen (they were both in The Godfather Part Two, but never in the same scene). I think the movie was more than I could absorb on a first viewing, but it’s since become one of my favourites of the 90’s. Pacino as the cop has some of the most flamboyant moments of his career, sometimes going clearly over the top, but to the end of painting a man so immersed in darkness that his only option is to define his own psychological and behavioral territory. De Niro, as the villain, plays a man who hardly lets anything slip – buttoned down and all business, although with an emotional streak that costs him his life in the end. The famous coffee shop scene, where the two acknowledge their places on opposite sides of the law, and the inevitability of a confrontation to come, is fascinating, but oddly restrained, as though they both feared where it might lead them to let loose.

It's hard to write at length about one without bringing up the other, and their careers seem very much like two sides of the same coin. At the moment I think Pacino has the clear upper hand, but that could easily swing the other way again. Actually I hope it does. Surely these two amazing icons aren’t through with surprising us yet.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Fact and fiction

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2003)

Dirty Pretty Things ought to be a slam-dunk – great concept matched with great execution. It’s directed by Stephen Frears, the British veteran who seems to be gaining increasing currency as one of the great directors – for instance, he was the subject of a special tribute at the film festival a couple of years ago. The lack of a recognizable visual style used to be a potential kiss of death under the auteur theory, but for Frears it’s generally cited as a strength – he’s engaged, committed, meticulous and funny, but ultimately allows the material to breathe in a way that, say, Oliver Stone doesn’t. I don’t know why Stone came to mind there, except that for a while he was at the top of the heap with two directing Oscars and another nomination within five years, the subject of huge scrutiny and debate, until he all but wore out his welcome. In a classic tortoise-hare reversal, it now seems clear that his place in the history book shrinks while that of others grows.

Dirty Pretty Things

Frears’ pragmatism has sometimes seen him smothered by unsuitable material (particularly Dustin Hoffman’s Hero), but one has to admit that My Beautiful Laundrette, The Hit, The Grifters, High Fidelity and Dangerous Liaisons form quite a resume. Except for The Grifters, and unlike a number of Stone’s movies, I haven’t seen any of them more than once – I guess I just like the auteurist excesses. But I’m sure Frears steered those works as close to maximum pay-off as anyone could have done. I don’t think that’s quite the case with the new film though.

It’s about immigrants in modern-day London – and it’s not about anyone else: there are no major white characters here. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a Nigerian doctor who fled from his country to avoid a trumped-up murder charge and now drives a cab by day. At night he works at a faded-grandeur hotel where the manager (Sergi Lopez) trades in human organs on the side: a fake passport in return for a kidney. It’s a horrifying premise, rendered all the more so through Frears’ unforced, matter-of-fact presentation. The movie’s early stages unfold this plot while painting a panoply of intriguing, marginal characters in a world where everything is a compromise: jobs, sexual pride, ownership over one’s body, love.

The film benefits immensely from Ejiofor’s sympathetic charisma, which compensates for Lopez’ rather by-the-numbers villain and Audrey Tautou’s rather pinched damsel in distress (her Amelie appeal isn’t particularly evident here). But in the end, the movie takes on the shape of a familiar thriller, grappling with the situation by a melodramatic reversal and, ultimately, by allowing its main characters to escape from it. That’s not unsatisfying as plotting, but you suspect the film could have accommodated a more penetrating analysis of what it depicts. Still, it’s refreshingly unsentimental, and it looks great, with a slightly tawdry look to the visuals, ably symbolizing the faded promise of the Britain that’s on display here.

Capturing the Friedmans

The story behind Capturing the Friedmans is stranger than most fictions. Andrew Jarecki made his fortune as the founder of, and then decided to become a filmmaker. He started making a documentary about New York City clowns, which brought him to David Friedman, one of the top children’s party entertainers. He stumbled in turn onto Friedman’s tortured personal history – fifteen years earlier, both his father and his younger brother had been imprisoned on multiple charges of child sex abuse. The father killed himself in jail after two years; the brother, who was only nineteen when he went into prison, served thirteen years. And it turned out that Friedman had videotaped many of the family’s conversations during this period, and was willing to make them available to Jarecki. Thus the project evolved into something more ambitious and darker than clowns could ever have yielded.

In part, Jarecki’s film is a relatively straightforward effort to understand what happened, constructed through interviews with detectives, lawyers, alleged victims, family members and others. Without ever seeming like an overt exercise in rehabilitation, the film casts severe questions on the adequacy of the police investigation and the credibility of the witnesses (the incident now seems like one of the notorious “false memory” cases). I think most viewers will conclude that the two men were certainly innocent of the bulk of the charges, but that there might have been something to the “no smoke without fire” view expressed in the movie.

This applies particularly to the father, who admitted to pedophilic incidents while denying the specific allegations. Based on his wife’s testimony, he sounds like a reluctant heterosexual who might have fared better in less strictly defined times – not that the movie traffics in overt sympathy. In one of Jarecki’s few striking misjudgments, the film only tells us at the very end that his 65-year old brother, who testifies to camera throughout the film, is a homosexual in a stable relationship. The timing suggests we should read this as a meaningful revelation (presumably as a window into the road that the father should have followed), but it struck me as manipulative.

Sadder than fiction

The film is generally far subtler than that though, and it’s overwhelmingly sad and disturbing. The home video footage, inevitably, is particularly painful and fascinating, as the family members strategize and accuse and yell at each other. The sons gang up not against the accused father but rather against their mother, who they regard as under-supportive (and more generally as a nagging woman who doesn’t share their intelligence or sense of humour) – this is another sense in which the film somehow seems almost to be about maleness. Even on the eve of imprisonment, anger and frustration coexist with goofy humour and occasional camaraderie, confirming human resilience but also showing how little they understood what was really happening to them. And of course, it’s impossible to know how much the fact of being filmed affected the family’s behavior. Some of the scenes, if they were being acted, would seem clumsy and not very well written. Maybe that’s life for you.

Of course, Jarecki was incredibly lucky to stumble on this material, and to some extent you might find yourself admiring his work more as assemblage and research than as art. That’s not fair though, for Capturing the Friedmans is extremely subtle and ambiguous. And it’s one film in which you categorically feel relief for the happy ending (or as happy an ending as the circumstances make possible), in which the brother is finally released and reunited with his now remarried mother. Although in a way you’d like to know what they do next, it’s better that the movie ends, before things turn dark again.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Shock claim: Gigli not so bad!

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2003)

According to the Toronto Star, only 2% of critics gave Gigli a positive review. So I should sew up my contrarian credentials for years ahead here, because I liked the movie. For sure, it isn’t an overall success, and there’s a pervasive sense of unease about it. But it has a crazy, endearing ambition. And a willfully perverse streak that I think deserves modest affection.

Martin Brest

As the world now knows, this is the movie that brought Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez together, playing two would-be assassins paired on a job, going from bickering to falling in love – even though she claims to be a lesbian! The world only knows this, of course, from the publicity overdrive; no one’s actually seen the film. It was a huge flop – I went on the fourth day of release, and there were seven other people in the theater. So much for the public’s supposed fascination with Affleck and Lopez.

More interesting to me was the film’s director Martin Brest. Brest’s last five films, in order, are Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run, Scent of a Woman, Meet Joe Black and Gigli – a striking journey from king of the mainstream to commercial wilderness. Scent of a Woman won the Oscar for Pacino, but Brest’s clear artistic peak came with Midnight Run. It’s clearly a chase picture, but possessing an almost spooky composure and unity of vision. The De Niro-Charles Grodin partnership in that movie is one of my all time favourites – a fascinating duel in competing styles, that’s ultimately remarkably complex and even moving.

Gigli, which is the first film Brest wrote for himself since his debut Going in Style, seems like an attempt to recreate the ambiance of Midnight Run in a different genre. It’s a romantic comedy, blended with a fractured meditation on the nature of sexual attraction. Affleck plays Gigli, a not particularly proficient tough guy who’s hiding a mentally challenged kidnap victim. Not trusting him to do the job, his boss puts another professional on the case – enter Lopez. The majority of the film takes place in Affleck’s drab apartment, which occasionally gives the movie the look of a cheaply shot stage adaptation. A stream of one-scene cameos increases the theatricality – Christopher Walken as a cop investigating the disappearance, Lainie Kazan as Affleck’s mother, Missy Crider as Lopez’ distraught lesbian lover, Pacino as a crime lord.

Gobble Gobble

The title, which again is the surname of Affleck’s character, serves as a metaphor for the film – it looks as though it should evoke Leslie Caron, is apparently meant to rhyme with “really,” but generally gets mispronounced as the more earthy-sounding “jiggly.” Which is one of the more minor examples of how Gigli meshes a romantic sensibility with a gratuitous coarseness. By coarseness I don’t just mean familiar swearwords, but such barnyard oddities as Affleck telling her early on that “I’m the bull, you’re the cow,” and Lopez initiating sex with the matchless line: “It’s turkey time…gobble gobble.” There’s a quality to this that seems to go beyond mere tastelessness, as though the movie were grasping at something elemental. At the same time, of course, it casts two beautiful people in the roles – and Lopez in particular is made to look as lovely as I’ve ever seen her. The conflict between these two strands is at the heart of the film’s “badness,” but I think it’s rather interesting if you think about it as an aesthetic construct.

As the relationship heats up, Affleck and Lopez have long monologues about the glories of the male and female genitalia respectively. Again, there’s something wantonly naïve about this, as though such subjects had never been discussed by anyone before. Lopez’ apparent lesbianism (which many viewers would probably read as a lie to keep Affleck at bay, until Crider suddenly turns up) is another source of fundamental sexual confusion. The relative claustrophobia of the apartment setting and the absence of a sense of the outside world (the cameos by Walken et al suggest it’s merely insane out there) occasionally cause the movie to resemble a weird behavioral laboratory.

Gigli’s most problematic element is the mentally challenged Brian, who communicates a considerable amount of sexual frustration (mainly expressed through an identification with Baywatch) while suffering through much abrasiveness and name-calling. I think Brest was trying to do the kind of thing the Farrelly brothers do with disabled actors – ennoble them by refusing to spare them. In Gigli it seems one-sided and plainly mean-spirited. And yet, the character is yet another strand in the sexually neurotic web I mentioned, like a painful embodiment of something from the other characters’ subconscious.

The ending, where Brian finds his version of Baywatch and (not really giving anything away here) Affleck and Lopez take off together is only partly a conventional wrap-up – even by the standards of romantic comedies, the permanence of the happy ending is highly in doubt. To me this confirms the extreme uncertainty and sense of conditionality that pervades the movie. So am I on to something here that others have missed, or is the above a colossal exercise in pseudo-intellectualism? Probably somewhere in between. Maybe I’m trying too hard to see merit in the film, but it’s hard to feel too guilty about that, given how others clambered over themselves to heap scorn on it.

Masked and Anonymous

Perhaps the second-most reviled movie of the year is Masked and Anonymous, a vastly confused, rambling odyssey which I take to be an attempt to find a fictional expression for Bob Dylan’s by now vastly allusive, complex persona. The movie (apparently co-written by Dylan under a pseudonym) is certainly a vanity project, a full cataloguing of which would probably demand intimate familiarity with the Dylan oeuvre – not something I can claim (although I’m enough of a fan to own Slow Train Coming, and even to listen to it once in a while).

Nevertheless, if I hadn’t used up all the space on Gigli, I could go on at some length about how the people in the movie (played by an all-star cast including Jeff Bridges – much more interesting here than in Seabiscuit – John Goodman, Penelope Cruz, Ed Harris (in blackface!), Jessica Lange, Mickey Rourke and the great Bruce Dern) represent this and that and how the basic premise and structure connote that or the other. Maybe it’d all be worth crap, I don’t know. But in summary, the film seems to me pretty close to what a Bob Dylan movie would have to be at this point, which is obviously vastly different from what that would have meant in say 1965. That’s probably all the information you need on that one. I will say though that Masked and Anonymous, for all its points of interest, is no Gigli.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Horse sense

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2003)

Seabiscuit belongs in a familiar category in American film – a nice little story, grotesquely padded-out with sentiment and would-be significance. As everyone knows by now, Seabiscuit was the 1930’s Depression-era little-horse-that-could; a written-off nag notable only for his prowess at sleeping and eating who somehow developed into a consistent winner, ultimately conquering the mighty War Admiral in a one-on-one encounter. I haven’t read Laura Hillenbrand’s bestseller, on which the film is based, but the movie explicitly regards Seabiscuit as the perfect symbol for his time – a creature written off and tossed on the scrap heap, who got his second chance and made the most of it.

About a horse

The new film, directed by Gary Ross (who directed Pleasantville and directed Dave and Big), is very well-made: handsomely photographed, lovingly designed, well cast, and making the most of the story’s lump-in-the-throat aspects. It stars Tobey Maguire as the horse’s unlikely jockey (too tall, volatile, blind in one eye), Jeff Bridges as the unlikely owner (a car magnate with his eye on the future, who thought horses belonged to the past) and Chris Cooper as the unlikely trainer (an eccentric who Bridges finds living in the bush): all three of them bruised by past tragedies and disappointments. Seabiscuit provides all of them (representing the country beyond) an opportunity for renewal and redemption, and Ross takes great pains to ensure that we don’t get tugged into the horse racing scenes as mere spectacle, that we’re always aware of their wider resonance.

At which point it seems necessary to confirm that, yes, it’s a movie about a horse. At one point I wondered whether Ross has ever seen Robert Bresson’s Au hazard Balthazar, built around the suffering of a poor donkey. By which I mean that there’s nothing inherently silly about an animal bearing immense filmic meaning and weight. It’s obviously a fine line though, when the most famous horse of the last century is probably Mr. Ed. Ross’ approach to this is to minimize the horse’s presence in the film. Seabiscuit doesn’t appear for the first 45 minutes, and he’s talked about in the film more than he’s actually seen. At the start of the big race, the opening buzzer sounds, and then rather than showing us whether Seabiscuit got away to the fast start they’d been planning for (and on the preparation for which the film has spent considerable time), Ross cuts to a montage of people around the country, listening to the race. It’s a shocking negation of his movie’s dramatic possibilities, as jarring an intrusion as something in a Godard movie.

Noble history

At this point, as throughout the film, historian David McCullough provides some voice-over narration on the historical context – at various points he tells us about Henry Ford, the 1929 crash, the depression, prohibition and so forth. It’s godawful stuff, like filler from the CBS Sunday morning show, doses of medicine that we must all presume to be good for us. As the film’s opening section flicks through the back stories of the three protagonists, regularly returning to McCullough’s ponderous asides, it feels like Ross hasn’t moved too far from his earlier career as a political scriptwriter. It’s only in America, I think, that ambitious mainstream films so often muse mistily on the country’s own past. The nostalgia seems superficially rooted in pride and fortitude, but by its very existence it seems to connote insecurity, a fear of a pending America that doesn’t know or care about the country’s noble history and of where that might lead.

You would have thought that Ross’ decision to downplay the horse would mean we get to know the human characters much better, but we don’t. It feels like the three protagonists, and Bridges’ wife played by Elizabeth Banks, are together in scene after scene, but they hardly talk about anything of substance. The movie shows them to us, but doesn’t illuminate anything. Bridges’ presence is especially disappointing, consisting almost entirely of a series of crumpled smiles on which the audience can project just about anything it likes. Maybe there’s some kind of metaphor for American history in there somewhere.

Seabiscuit is hardly a bad movie, but that’s because it’s only partly a movie, and partly a multimedia cultural heritage project. I really question which is the greater insult to the audience’s intelligence – the regular summer action fodder, or this kind of golden-flow patriot fodder.

Other myths

If you’re going to do the mythic thing, you may as well go all the way, and that leads you to Michael Polish’s Northfork – another specifically “American” creation set around a dying valley on the eve of being flooded by a new dam. It follows a group of men in black charged with moving inhabitants out of the valley, a priest caring for a sick child, and a group of angels searching for a lost colleague. The movie is shot in a desaturated colour verging on black and white; it’s brooding and allusive, sometimes starkly funny, and never straightforward. Except for isolated moments, I doubt the film will have much lasting stature – it follows too specific and esoteric a formula. And I doubt whether the Polish brothers (Michael’s twin brother Mark co-wrote and stars in the film) yet have the rigour of important artists. But it’s a unique movie, and mostly in a good way.

Another kind of myth-making is on view in Alex Proyas’ Garage Days. After The Crow and Dark City, the Australian Proyas applies his technical facility (no less impressive for being more or less indistinguishable from that of Guy Ritchie or the new breed of Mexican directors or just about any other movie director under 40) to a simple story of a rock band trying to make good. The trailer and poster give away what would otherwise have seemed to be the movie’s major twist: they eventually get their big break, but they suck. The movie enjoys sketching out their sundry misadventures, although it’s all extremely (almost defiantly) basic kind of stuff, with barely a cliché left outside the garage. And much as Seabiscuit almost forgets about the horse, Garage Days definitely forgets about the music, rendering their great passion strangely abstract.

Proyas can’t make a great movie out of it, but he makes it seem like more than a purely local story. He wields the tools of cinema so dashingly that the movie almost takes on a cosmic scope. There’s a word for this of course – pretentious. But at least he’s not lecturing us about anything.