Sunday, December 31, 2017

Toronto film festival report, part four

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1999)

This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival.

Breakfast of Champions (Alan Rudolph)
Impossible to imagine many people actually liking this hyperactive version of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel about the impossible strains of latter-day consumption-crazed America (it’s already been and gone from commercial release), although Nick Nolte’s performance as a cracked cross-dresser almost redeems the whole thing. Bruce Willis, though, in the central role, is as flat as the cardboard cutouts of him that pop up in every other scene (as with so much about this film, it’s hard to tell how deliberate that is). The film is seeped in tacky, garish imagery, reminiscent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (although the characters aren’t on acid exactly): it’s a strange, hermetic construct – not wacky enough to be interesting on its own terms, but not sufficiently relevant to perform as satire (particularly as the ending is more a surrender than a conclusion). It does generate a strange sense of alienation and longing, and some of Rudolph’s visual tricks are giddily entertaining in the manner of a Monty Python cartoon insert: one suspects the film’s nutty messiness is more or less what was intended, but it’s hard to celebrate that kind of success.

Guinevere (Audrey Wells)
This sensitive drama of a young woman’s affair with a much older photographer effectively explores the problematic nature for a woman of finding one’s identity and maturity through a relationship which inherently seems weighted towards the egotistical gratification of the male. Sarah Polley and Stephen Rea make intriguing partners in what develops into a subtle power game, even if the conception of Rea’s character tends a bit too much toward conventional, self-possessed charismatic distance. The film’s side-excursions into satire (mainly through pot-shots at Polley’s constipated family of lawyers) are most successful; in the end, the film allows Rea a measure of indulgence in his grandiose fantasy, but makes that enjoyment explicitly a gift that lies under Polley’s control – one might have a satisfying sexual-politics-oriented debate about whether this is a satisfying arrival point (I think it’s passable).

Women talking Dirty (Coky Giedroyc)
An undistinguished piece of festival schedule-padding that although not the worst film I saw at the festival was the one that left my head feeling the emptiest. Two women in picturesque Edinburgh go through an unremarkable succession of romantic ups and downs; one (Helena Bonham Carter) is tediously quirky, the other (Gina McKee) is low-key and mopey. There’s an icky secret that injects some fire into the latter stages, but so little happens through vast stretches of the film that I defy anyone not to get distracted by McKee’s quite pretty apartment and to drift off into thinking about home decorating (great purple couch). The themes, of course, involve female self-determination and life-balance issues (the same issues currently dealt with more effectively in Guinevere and Tumbleweeds and, I’m sure, numerous others). There’s not much dirty talk, which is a further disadvantage. The film is so undistinctive that it plays Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” over one sequence. Elton John was one of the producers. Can’t think of anything else to say about it.

Tumbleweeds (Gavin O’Connor)
A film that, compared with the above, evidences vastly superior insight and finesse in dealing with broadly similar concerns. Janet McTeer  (in an excellent, wide-ranging performance) plays a four-times-married woman whose response to romantic letdowns is always to move along, with her 10-year-old daughter in tow. The film is fundamentally familiar in its exploration of how a woman asserts her self-determination and independence when drawn as a matter of emotional and sexual practicality into relationships with men (none of whom, as luck would have it, are much good); it’s an older, blue-collar version of Guinevere, given additional resonance by the contrast with the daughter’s budding maturity and the well-caught texture of the small-town Northern Californian surroundings. Any film that can cast the great and weird Michael J. Pollard as an office manager without losing its grip on plausibility has confidence to burn; director O’Connor seems to have a perfect sense for where quirkiness and realism most profitably intersect, and creates a rich, resonant film.

Onegin (Martha Fiennes)
An oddly somber, if not depressing, choice as the closing night gala, this tragic story of a nobleman who spurns an offered love then later seeks to reclaim it is dramatically rather inert and thematically unexceptional. Ralph Fiennes rises well to the challenge of Onegin, conveying the character’s shift from arrogance to desolation (his motives remain undramatized in some key respects, but the film is comfortable with its own mystery). Liv Tyler is also as good as she’s ever been. The film’s brooding atmosphere is sometimes highly effective (such as in an almost unbearably tense duel sequence); sometimes on the strained side, with the sound design introducing an almost otherworldly element into its dramatization of disengagement and decay. Its measured eeriness is never dull, but the attention given to the film may be a counterproductive case of overselling – there’s a severe limit to how much hype this modest work can carry.

Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan)
Already in commercial release, this gentle film about the attainment of unobtrusive stability has a style that almost expresses its theme too well – it’s so polite and pleasant as to almost melt away before your very eyes. Loren Dean plays a psychologist called Mumford, practicing in the small town of Mumford (neatly summarizing the theme of assimilation), who achieves success and local popularity more through sympathetic listening and empathy than through clinical technique – no surprise then, that he’s not a psychologist at all, but just a man trying to escape the mistakes of his past. Dean’s undemonstrative performance is oddly suited to a movie that’s clearly conservative, if not regressive, in its distrust of pace, ambition and big business (Ted Danson has a wonderful cameo as the embodiment of all these evils). In many ways the movie seems merely trite and naïve, hardly funny at all even though it’s being sold as a comedy, and yet it’s certainly coherent and assured – it’s as if Kasdan had been making the same basic movie for years and has thus attained a comfortable, almost effortless autopilot; a strange effect given that this hasn’t in fact been Kasdan’s career.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Miracle on the greens

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2000)

I doubt that my low regard for Robert Redford’s new film The Legend of Bagger Vance is simply a consequence of my not being a golfer. True, it came as a surprise to me how much of the film – well over half – consists basically of a golf tournament, the progress of which marks (of course) the redemption of its protagonist. But then, Ron Shelton’s Tin Cup a few years ago was also an intensive golf movie, and I liked that one just fine (I cannot at the moment recall with accuracy whether I’ve ever seen the daddy of them all, Caddyshack, although for some reason I’m fairly sure I’ve seen Caddyshack 2). I watch the major tournaments on TV, monitor Tiger Woods’ progress toward the record of 18 major championships, and have occasionally faked my way through a conversation with a keen golfer without ever divulging my own lack of participation. I rather like the notion of golf as a solitary endeavor, spread out over a vast terrain, variously requiring both brute strength and extraordinary delicacy of touch and analysis. None of this is likely to find me spending three or four hours walking and hitting balls when I could be watching a movie (not just any movie – Lawrence of Arabia!), but it means I’m as up for a good golf movie as anyone else is.

Faded hotshot

Steeped in golf lore, Bagger Vance is the story of a faded young hotshot (Matt Damon) whose glittering career peters out after he’s traumatized by his service in World War One. He descends into drink and inertia, until the local bigshots stage an exhibition match between titans Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, and seek his participation as the only semi-viable local representative. He initially refuses, but then (for reasons that the film barely manages to articulate) changes his mind. Carrying his bag is the title character (Will Smith), who simply appears from the darkness one night, to begin instantly dispensing advice and insight, all with a detached twinkle and infinite patience and self-possession.

Redford doesn’t appear in the film (although the actor who plays Jones is a dead ringer for the younger RR) but in its pictorial splendor, its deliberate pace, its adherence to traditional values and general inoffensiveness, and in the amount of time it spends photographing grass, it’s squarely in line with most of the movie’s he’s directed. I just looked back at my review of his last film The Horse Whisperer, in June 1998. One of the greatest achievements of that film, I said, was that “even though we know Redford is directing it himself, and that he’s therefore personally responsible for taking a simple story and padding it out to almost three hours, largely by making his own character into some kind of mythic ideal of unpolluted masculinity, it doesn’t offend us as one of the more tasteless ego trips in recent cinema. This I suppose is the true mark of his skill: to stand before us as an icon without inciting revolt or revulsion.”

Happy caddy

Bagger Vance is much the same thing, except on this occasion it’s significantly more annoying (although at least it’s a bit shorter). The Horse Whisperer had a genuine interest in character, however woolly and self-indulgent. But I can hardly remember a “serious” film that showed so little curiosity in or regard for the complexity of human personality as Bagger Vance. Damon’s background is sketched for us in a long opening voice-over; we get a couple of scenes of his down-and-out state, then he decides to sign on to the golf tournament and from there it’s one big ride to renewal. The character is a complete cipher, a blank vessel with “Save me” written across his vacant forehead.

But the conception of Damon’s character is positively Shakespearean compared to that of the eponymous Bagger. It’s an (I suppose) amusing irony that Jada Pinkett Smith could be seen in screens in Spike Lee’s savage Bamboozled, where she’s at the heart of the film’s diatribe against reductive images of black culture, her husband Will happily occupies an utterly demeaning role in which he’s cast as a beaming sprite, channeling mystic wisdom and intuition. Southern golf clubs are famous for their late conversion (if it’s happened at all) to the cause of integration, but there’s not the slightest hint of this subject in Bagger Vance. When Damon suffers an abysmal start to the tournament, and the local bigwigs rail at Vance for his apparent negative influence on their intended golden boy, it’s very hard to imagine that their antipathy would have been so scrupulously expressed in entirely non-racial terms.

A perfect shot

Anyway, the film has no psychological tension whatsoever, and since the outcome is exactly the one that you’d imagine, there’s really not a lot to it. I wasn’t bored, but I had a lot of time dring the film to think over my stocks, and some stuff I have on my desk at work, and much more besides. One of the things I thought about was why so many films of supposedly serious intent dabble now in theologically unspecific but explicitly supernatural mysticism. I remember being amazed ten years ago when Field of Dreams got away with being so silly, but nowadays that movie would seem virtually sane. The Green Mile, for instance, with its Jesus Christ evocations attached to a dumb prisoner possessing the power of healing, was staggeringly pretentious and stupid – and it got an Oscar nomination! (Come to think of it, a black actor filled that role too – I’d like Spike Lee to investigate this trend). Pay it Forward verges on the same territory, not to mention that there’s another angel movie (although if the angels are Charlie’s, I’m OK with them).

I guess that if I had a different preconception in these matters I’d probably applaud the trend toward greater spirituality in movies. But when it’s expressed in such terms as golf clubs possessed by magic…well, you really have to be desperate for your soul to be stroked to get off on the stuff. The philosophy of Bagger Vance, if it can be termed as such, is summed up thus: “There’s a perfect shot out there…all we have to do is let it choose us.” Not only is this pretty useless as an insight into our existence – I’m told golf’s a bit harder than that as well.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Dying is easy

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2004)
New movies in the same weekend by Kevin Smith and the Coen Brothers – this should have been the best news for comedy since Pauly Shore stopped making movies (sorry - just thought I’d try that one out). Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. 
Jersey Girl
So if you take Smith, the deceptively low-brow seeming auteur of Clerks and Dogma, and subtract the flamboyant obscenity, the comic books and the frantic invention, we now know that you get something close to Edward Burns. Burns is the guy who had a brief run as a chronicler of blue-collar New Jersey (The Brothers McMullen won big at Sundance) before his luck ran out (as a director that is – he continues to do pretty well at scoring acting gigs). Smith’s new film Jersey Girl doesn’t have Jay and Silent Bob, and has not one use of the f-word, and that’s even with George Carlin in the cast. In some scenes you can viscerally feel Smith straining to write his way around his normal vocabulary.  He just about made it – but what was the point?
Apparently rooted in some way in Smith’s new contentment as a husband and father, Jersey Girl stars Ben Affleck as a career-loving Manhattan publicity consultant. He marries a book editor played by Jennifer Lopez (although it seems that we’ve been reading the Bennifer stories forever, the two actually met on the set of this film), and when she gets pregnant he grudgingly accepts the prospect of an adjustment in his work-life balance. But Lopez dies in childbirth, and he’s left with his agony and with a daughter he can’t comprehend. When a frustrated outburst costs him his job, he moves back to New Jersey with his father (Carlin), and eventually goes to work with the old man in the sanitation department. The years go by, the kid grows up to be seven, and Affleck adores her, but never stops thinking of getting back to Manhattan and into the game again...
As if in partial compensation for his self-imposed f-word embargo, Smith contrives a bizarre meeting between Affleck and Liv Tyler in which she, a video store clerk, harasses him about his renting a porno tape. This is just the most egregious of the movie’s many off moments. Sometimes – as in the weird choice of a scene from Sweeney Todd for the kid’s act at the school play – you think it might amount to something, but it never lasts. In the end, Will Smith, playing himself, turns up as the voice of wisdom, musing on the magic of fatherhood and on the wretched compromises that take you away from your kids. I’m only guessing here, but I think the parenting support system available to Will Smith might be a bit plusher than the norm – plush enough, maybe, that a director of serious intent could have looked elsewhere. As it is, Smith’s appearance seems quasi-ethereal and rather demeaning, like his role in The Legend of Bagger Vance.
(Kevin) Smith’s earlier movies were defiant in asserting his tastes and sensibilities – they had a swaggering take it or leave it quality about them. But on the basis of Jersey Girl, you can only assume he agrees with all those cracks about his own arrested development. His idea of an adult movie is to make himself into someone else. As if tired of the recurring jibes about his films’ undistinguished visual style, he hired Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters; McCabe and Mrs. Miller) – but the film’s resulting gloss only serves to emphasize its lack of personality. At the end of it, you feel that Smith’s in a similar spot to Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, agonizing over being superficial and about the meaning of it all, whereas God only wants him to concentrate on making funnier movies. Sadly, by the time Allen really took that advice on board, his skills had eroded. Smith’s skills were never at that level to begin with, which I’d say makes his next move rather critical.
The Ladykillers
The Coen brothers’ latest film The Ladykillers is another case of auteurs scoring below par. It’s a film of inventive, quirky bits and pieces (much better than any of the bits and pieces in Jersey Girl) that fail to coalesce into a whole. The film’s opening ten minutes hit you like random cuttings from a studio floor – a credit sequence built around garbage barges; a long stilted conversation in a sheriff’s office; Tom Hanks doing a weird accent; Marlon Wayans in a scene that could fit in a hundred other movies; an indescribable interlude involving a dog in a gas mask, and so it goes on. 
These early scenes set up a motley bunch of criminals, and the old lady whose basement they intend to use as a base for digging into a nearby vault. The film is a remake of a 1950’s British classic, and it’s hard to know why the Coens bothered. The movie never stops feeling fragmented – it doesn’t flow with anything close to the fluency of their best movies. Of course, their narratives have always been crammed and digressive – movies like Fargo and O!  Brother Where Art Thou meld a corkscrew sensibility with an approach to character that’s somehow both clinical and tolerant. When it works, it’s a dazzling act. But their second-tier movies tend to seem like creations where you instantly get half the joke and love it, but somehow can’t summon the energy to figure out the other half.


The Ladykillers comes out only six months after their last film, Intolerable Cruelty. That was a more unified effort than this one, but felt superficial next to their best work – for one thing, it was set in Hollywood, which at this late stage seems like a tired satirical target. The new film’s quick arrival, the presence of Hanks, the general sloppiness, and the presence of a Gospel soundtrack that seems too stridently designed to match the success of the O! Brother bluegrass soundtrack, all seem to smack of what Hollywood calls “product.” And although it’s often funny, I found myself laughing more at Wayans’ trademarked profanity than anything else. Which gives The Ladykillers something in common with Scary Movie.

Talking of auteurs, but no longer of comedy, Neil Young picks up his sporadic film- directing sideline with Greendale, a muddled story of small town mishaps set to a nine-track song suite. The film is grainy and haphazard, taking potshots at some identifiable targets like John Ashcroft, and conveying no end of suspicion about the modern media, before ending up on an expansive be-one-with-nature note. The film is dully literal-minded – the images generally merely illustrate what’s plain from the lyrics, although there’s the odd bit of surrealism in there too. But compared to the two films reviewed above, Young’s is at least intimately faithful to his muse.

No sunshine

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2000)

It was director Nicholas Ray who reportedly said, “If it were all in the script, why make the movie?” Not many movies nowadays provide any particular reason to think back to that remark (today’s directors are mostly showmen, if they’re anything at all), but Istvan Szabo’s Sunshine is an unwelcome exception. Here’s a film that provides not one solitary moment of visual imagination, not one memorable flare of the director’s craft. The picture is not an ounce better than its script, and given that the writing appears little more inspired than that of the average corporate training video, that doesn’t give us much. And it’s three hours long. Sad to say, this monumental mediocrity is a Canadian co-production, nominated for several hundred Genie awards.


The film follows three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family, through the First and Second World Wars and the subsequent upheavals. Ralph Fiennes plays the most prominent male members of each generation. The family passes through various stages of upheaval and suffering, losing sight of its inherent strength and tradition before finally finding peace with its own history.

The story winds through some of the key events of our century (a family member dies in a concentration camp; another is a leading protestor against the Russian occupancy in 1956 Budapest), but makes little attempt to convey either an emotional or an intellectual sense of those events. There are a few flatly-staged crowd scenes, but the action consists mainly of conversations in rooms, with archival newsreel footage liberally interspersed. I can’t tell you how irritated I got at the film’s continual use of Fiennes’ voice-over to tell us what happened between one scene and the next (especially as the events he describes almost invariably sound more interesting than the stuff actually put on screen). This could theoretically have been an interesting artistic strategy, perhaps exploring the impotence of individual gestures against the crushing power of political and institutional change, but it certainly doesn’t function here as such. It’s more as if they set out to film a vast, sweeping novel, but with a shoestring budget that meant most of the good stuff had to be cannibalized or glossed over.

Lost investment

Unfortunately, I understand it’s not a low-budget film at all. A couple of months ago I cited Giuseppe Tornatore’s Legend of 1900 – the saga of a piano player who lives his whole life on an ocean liner – as the epitome of a certain kind of lavish, commercially doomed art film. Tornatore’s film, whatever its faults, seemed to me to follow its own muse. But Sunshine is as off-puttingly calculating as a Bond movie. It means to make us glow with its humanity, to make us gasp at its scope. It has the requisite amount of Euro-style nudity, scattered carefully through the film. It has the speeches, the recriminations, the tragic ironies. Surely the subject matter must have meant something to Hungarian director Szabo (best-known for his Oscar-winning Mephisto), but on this evidence he’s artistically decrepit, phoning it in.

Of course, it’s not as if one salvages nothing from the experience. The last third of the film is moderately successful in tracing the moral decay of the Communist takeover (an appearance by William Hurt, more nuanced than the rest of the cast put together, helps). The death of one of the Fiennes characters is chilling, as is the depiction of the family sitting around the radio, pouncing on every shard of hope, as the Jewish exclusionary laws are announced. But ultimately, there’s no compelling reason for the film to exist. It doesn’t have the artistic aspirations of, say, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which came to my mind not least because the recreation of Prague ’68 in that film is so vastly superior to the equivalent set-pieces in this work); it has no commitment to revealing character, being entirely lacking in spontaneity; it’s not really interested in illustrating politics or social change (I often found myself, during the plodding exposition of escalating anti-Semitism, longing for Oliver Stone). And the poor shareholders of Alliance Atlantis won’t even have the consolation of knowing they squandered their money for the greater Canadian good – on a three-hour bio of Rene Levesque for instance, or of Peter Gzowski, or even Mike Duffy.

The Cider House Rules

By comparison, Lasse Hallstrom’s The Cider House Rules is a film of studiously limited ambition, yet nothing in Sunshine sends as much of a transgressive shiver down the spine, as Cider House’s unflinching embrace of what’s pejoratively termed “abortion on demand.” In this adaptation of John Irving’s book, Michael Caine (excellent) plays an overseer of a remote New England orphanage, fervently devoted both to his poignantly-portrayed changes (“Princes of Maine, Kings of New England”) and to his secondary abortion practice. Tobey Maguire (sweet, but a bit bland) is the orphanage-raised protégé who rejects the path Caine’s designated for him, and goes off to see the world.

The film is generally much like an afternoon siesta in a Maine meadow – pleasant enough as long as you don’t have too much else on your to do list. As it goes on, the intended theme seems to be about self-discovery through gentle myth-making, about tearing up the rules – but this is all rather less than persuasive from a film that takes so few chances itself. The oddly restrained climax certainly doesn’t hit home. But The Cider House Rules stands apart from mere travelogue if only because of its treatment of abortion, in which respect the filmmakers must consider themselves very lucky not to be attracting more adverse publicity than they are. Maybe, given its box-office failure, the habitual protestors have finally learned that disdain is the best weapon.

Any Given Sunday

Talking as I was of Oliver Stone, I also saw his new film Any Given Sunday, a pro-football epic that Stone puts across like a sequel to JFK; any given scene groans under the director’s hunger for complexity and expansiveness. But even if his subject-matter were as compelling as that of the earlier movie, his instincts certainly aren’t – the kinetic style often seems borderline ludicrous here, and works against any sort of dramatic differentiation. The main plotline, contrasting the weathered coach (Al Pacino, with a couple of good locker-room speeches) and the young hotshot, sputters along to a climax so unconvincing that you could accuse the film’s last twenty minutes of dissing the grander ambitions of its first two hours. A case perhaps for a conspiracy theorist, once he’s finished investigating how Sunshine got made.

Monday, December 4, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2001)

I’ve missed Pearl Harbor and Shrek and A Knight’s Tale and all the summer blockbusters so far except Dominic Sena’s Swordfish, which I went to see because my brother and my sister in law were in town and it was something we could all just about agree on. Going on, my thought was Swordfish looked like a slightly more adult, hard-edged brand of popcorn. Well, I guess that’s about right, but how hard-edged is popcorn ever going to be (you could break a tooth!) The movie sure wasn’t a waste of time. I was consistently entertained by it. Maybe it’s even brilliant. Or maybe it’s that I’ve stayed away from blockbusters too much, and I’m forgetting the rules of the game.

Swordfish has John Travolta as a master villain leading a multi-billion-dollar computer hacking scam; he enlists down-on-his-luck hacker Hugh Jackman to do the dirty work. Halle Berry plays Travolta’s right-hand woman, and Don Cheadle is the cop on the trail. The movie is shot in the fast-cutting, high-gloss style we expect of contemporary action films, with lots of explosions and chases and confrontations, utilizing state-of-the-art special effects. It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense, but that seems like a quaint kind of complaint in this context. And yet not, for Swordfish’s most intriguing quality is an apparent semi-awareness of its own idiocies and compromises – an awareness that it airs fully on the screen, without ever exhibiting any desire to do anything about it.

The mind believes

The film’s philosophy, such as it is, seems to be summed up by Travolta’s approving description of Harry Houdini as a master of “misdirection” – “what the eyes see and the ears hear the mind believes.” This has an obvious application to cinema, dovetailing with an opening monologue in which Travolta muses on cinematic creation (with particular reference to Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon). There’s a shot early on, of a ball-bearing rolling across  the floor and coming to rest with Hugh Jackman’s reflection in it, that made me think fleetingly of Orson Welles, and thus of Welles’ admission in F for Fake that he’s been lying his way through the latter part of the movie. Swordfish is intellectually barren by comparison, yet the movie’s excess and the depth of its confusion are enormously interesting. It’s rather like this year’s 15 Minutes, which I wrote seemed to me as though “a serviceable, unremarkable thriller had been driven mad by the intensity and turpitude of its preoccupations.” Swordfish is dumber and more programmatic than 15 Minutes, which in this somewhat bizarre context may actually generate a better film.

The ”misdirection” partly amounts to the kind of plot twists and reversals we’ve seen a thousand times – characters who seem to have died but really haven’t, who seem to be one thing but are really another, etc. etc. But it also goes deeper. The film oscillates between passing reflectiveness – on cinema, on global politics, on relative moral choices – and vacuousness that’s extreme even by commercial standards. The plot appears essentially insular and passive – crime by computer hacking doesn’t really involve having to do much – but decks itself out with vastly gratuitous action-packed manifestations, none of which seem well-integrated into the core plot.

Topless Halle

The movie fusses over the back-story for Hugh Jackman’s character – he has a daughter that he’s desperate to take back from her porn star mother – and yet most of its other characters are conceived only in grotesquely melodramatic terms. Travolta is the most cartoonish of supervillains, and yet comes equipped with a weirdly grandiose motivation – to use the stolen money to gain revenge on America’s terrorist enemies. The film demonstrates magnificent technical expertise – such as a breathtaking circular pan around an explosion – mixed in with a maladroit approach to basic storytelling and clarity.

When Jackman first meets Travolta, the latter tests him by having him hack his way into a top-security site in less than sixty seconds, while simultaneously having a gun held to his head and being orally serviced by one of Travolta’s blonde minions. What kind of sordid juvenile imagination would ever come up with something like this, let alone persuade respectable actors and technicians actually to put it up on film? But the scene serves to embody the sensory overload and fearlessness that prevails throughout. The movie is already notorious for a topless scene by Halle Berry. I was taken aback by the, uh, out there nature of the scene – the camera cuts to her and there she is, topless, with none of the pansying around that normally attends big star flashing. It’s definitely indicative of a definable attitude. Of some kind.

Sidney Lumet

Nothing is wackier than the film’s evocation of Dog Day Afternoon – which Travolta informs us is Sidney Lumet’s best directing job. Of all directors who might have been name-checked here, it’s amazing that someone as self-effacing as Lumet would be the one. Actually, I think Dog Day Afternoon, although still enormously enjoyable, may now seem mainly like an example of how to do a genre piece with unusual wit and energy and exuberant characterization. But some of Lumet’s movies do achieve a depth of feeling and poignancy that I don’t think he’s received sufficient attention for. Network falls into that category, and it happened that the day before seeing Swordfish I rewatched The Verdict – a simple David vs. Goliath legal story transformed into a bracing meditation on redemption and the nature of justice. When Paul Newman astonishingly wins his case at the end, Lumet moves the camera into a sudden close-up of his reaction, and coming after such a still, sculptured film, it’s almost shocking – effective not just as dramatic underlining but also as moral revelation. There’s not a moment in Swordfish (including Travolta’s monologue on Lumet, in which the camera constantly moves in and out of focus) that doesn’t mess with the camera more than that.

It’s just faintly possible that Sena holds Lumet in contempt, and that this is merely the movie’s cruelest and most personal example of misdirection. As you can see, his film accommodates all sorts of musings – it’s a dynamo of signs and possibilities. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to determine how much of this is accomplished despite rather than because of the filmmakers’ efforts. It’s possible also that Swordfish is as near as we’ve come so far to the theoretical roomful of typing monkeys that ultimately generates the complete works of Shakespeare.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Beatty low spot

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2001)

Nowadays, if I can, I stay away from bad movies. Seems obvious, but it took me decades to attain that kind of restraint. As recently as two years ago, I fell prey to The Mod Squad. Just the merest glimmer of possible interest, just one mildly approving critical voice, one quirky scene in the trailer, and I’d be there, never having learned from my past mistakes. But I knew I’d turned a corner when I let Mission to Mars, directed by the mighty Brian de Palma, pass by unseen, yielding to the consensus of the bad reviews (despite some clear-cut dissenting opinions). True, I watched that film on cable later on, but I think it’s legitimate to apply a lower standard once you’ve paid for the TMN subscription. Ironically, I thought it was pretty good – I should probably have gone to the theater after all.


Despite this discernment, there was never any question of my staying away from Town and Country. Forget all the lousy reviews, all the gossip about how the film went over-budget and missed twelve scheduled release dates due to re-shooting and re-editing and corporate nervousness. Warren Beatty has always fascinated me, and I treat his movies – as I have Woody Allen’s for years now – as an exercise in keeping the faith.

Throughout his career, Beatty has worked at a very deliberate pace – usually taking at least a few years between movies, sometimes five or six. Sometimes, he ends the silence with a film of huge ambition, easily justifying the sense of a Kubrick-like gestation period. Reds and Bulworth were examples of this, as in a somewhat different way was Dick Tracy. And don’t forget that he’s one of the very few actors to have been nominated for an Oscar in four successive decades (Bonnie and Clyde, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Bugsy). But equally as often, Beatty returns with films that are sappy or loose or at best blatantly minor – Ishtar, Love Affair and now Town and Country.

Those films, like Heaven Can Wait and his earlier The Fortune, were either explicit remakes of earlier movies or knowing throwbacks to earlier sub-genres. It’s as though Beatty couldn’t help following up an act of boldness or daring by regressing to the safety of the tried and true, except that he must realize his choices are so tried and true they’re verging on the decrepit. At the time of Bulworth, stories emphasized how he’d immersed himself in black culture, hanging out with a string of rap stars. Town and Country only leaves the white enclave to make dubious jokes at the expense of foreign accents: it’s filled with people Beatty’s known for twenty or thirty years, and even has a role for Charlton Heston (just as in Love Affair he cast Katharine Hepburn).

Away from the real world

Beatty must be the ultimate Hollywood establishment figure – he’s been a leading man for forty years, he’s Shirley MacLaine’s brother, he’s slept with leading actresses from just about every decade of sound cinema, except maybe the 30’s, and he work frequently plays off the fact that we know all this about him, even as he feigns reticence in interviews. He has a hesitant style, as though just feeling his way along, but he’s held his own and more with many of the leading power brokers of our time, and as recently as last year allowed speculation to swirl around the idea of his running for president. He’s known for the labyrinthine nature of his deal-making process, for always having another angle, and his career certainly supports the notion that he may frequently have been up to something we can’t quite figure out.

Town and Country is directed by Peter Chelsom rather than by Beatty himself. Beatty is claiming to be merely an actor for hire, but the movie sure doesn’t look like it, and Chelsom is keeping his distance from the press. Beatty plays a well-to-do architect, married for twenty-five years to Diane Keaton, who messes everything up by sleeping with a cellist (Nastassja Kinski), Keaton’s best friend (Goldie Hawn) and a couple of others. It’s based in the plush Manhattan of many Woody Allen movies, with frequent digressions to second or third homes – the “real world,” as we might call it, is represented by the likes of doormen and the comic foreigners I mentioned already.

The film is incoherent in the extreme, with Beatty seeming to go through the motions – there’s no sense of relish to any of his pursuits, nor to anything he does really, and it’s the same with everyone else in the movie. This might connote a theme of disillusionment – some kind of critique of the character Beatty played in Shampoo, with the excessive opulence forming a metaphorical prison. As you can see, I’m trying to be as open-minded as possible, but if the movie had any such intentions, they’re not achieved. The hiring of Chelsom, who’s mainly worked in Britain and never on anything close to this kind of scale, would only make sense if he was supposed to bring some kind of outsider’s perspective to the material, but nothing like that is evident. Instead, Chelsom fails even to punch home the (oddly) simple comic set pieces – Beatty falling off a roof, that kind of thing.

Bridget over Beatty

I didn’t laugh at all, except maybe during the sequences with Heston and his foul-mouthed wife, played by Marian Seldes. I assume the intention here was to introduce some colorful side characters, reminiscent of a Preston Sturges movie maybe. The stuff’s so dumb and silly that it acts as a respite from the pervading dullness, which is not the same as saying it’s actually any good.

The following day, I saw Bridget Jones’ Diary, which has much better writing and acting than Town and Country, and provides some genuine laughs, and overall feels quite invigorating by comparison. Right now, if you’re looking for viable adult comedy, Bridget easily wins over Beatty. But despite this mediocre experience, I’ve retained my faith. And I’m expecting to be here in 2004 or so, taken aback by his newest change of direction, and reflecting how Town and Country suddenly seems rather intriguing after all.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sex games

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2001)

It’s a little hard to make sense of director Wayne Wang’s career, but he clearly deserves credit for trying out new rhythms. He spent his first decade primarily in an Asian-American niche, then broke out with Smoke, a film of great ambition and startling shifts in quality. The movie owed a lot to its co-writer Paul Auster, a debt that became even clearer when Auster and Wang co-directed Blue in the Face, a collection of odds and ends assembled around the set of Smoke. Wang then made Chinese Box, a film set against the independence of Hong Kong that burst with symbols and metaphors and parallels – it never felt close to being as coherent a structure as a box, but it always provoked and diverted, and it made full use of Hong Kong’s gaudy mixed-up energy. The best performance in the film was by Maggie Cheung, as a live-wire entrepreneur masking a troubled history, and Wang next decided to explore the female spirit further in Anywhere but Here; however, despite that film’s sincere immersion in the characters, Wang seemed only to steer it along the most obvious emotional highways. It’s conceivable that the formidable Susan Sarandon proved too strong a personality to respond to Wang’s seemingly gentle style.

Indecent proposal

His new film The Center of the World is also in large part an exploration of a woman, played here by Molly Parker as a stripper who accepts $10,000 to spend the weekend in a Vegas hotel room with an aimless young millionaire (Peter Sarsgaard). The deal requires an obvious degree of submission on her part, but she sets out some ground rules: no kissing on the mouth, no penetration…the film’s emotional tension mainly involves whether or not these strictures can remain intact – something that he (believing himself in love with her) pushes for and that she resists. Inevitably, the film spends a lot of time simply observing Parker as she poses or dances or carries out various sexual acts. John Harkness in Now remarked on this in (I think) rather rude terms: “When the camera gets in close to the not quite pretty and extremely freckled Parker, and all that pixillated grain shows up, you start wondering if Sarsgaard may have had some kind of childhood sexual fixation on oatmeal.”

But surely this is deliberate. At one point, we observe Parker at length as she applies her make-up for the evening – we see her rub masking cream on a particularly pronounced freckle near her mouth and transform herself from a distinctive woman into a Stepford-like creation of unnaturally white skin and disturbing red lips. Parker never seems particularly comfortable with the (essentially familiar) role – Carla Gugino, in a brief supporting role, stakes out a more interestingly ambiguous portrait of self-exploitation. But Wang presumably got what he wanted – a deliberately uneasy fusion of actress and role, preventing easy voyeurism by the viewer. legends

The film was released here on the day John Roth announced his retirement as CEO of Nortel, which isn’t a bad coincidence. Sarsgaard’s character is running from the pressures of an IPO that will exponentially increase his wealth – he misses a key meeting with the investors, but later learns (via a voice mail message) that the deal went ahead anyway, shot through the roof, and increased his wealth twenty-fold. Now doesn’t that sound like last year’s story? I doubt very much whether Wang wished his film to become so quickly dated – it’s shot on digital video, with a pervasive immediacy and intimacy: it’s all about today rather than yesterday. But maybe he got sort of lucky. With a little distance from the bubble, we can see how much the whole thing depended on a cult of virility. There were never, of course, as many millionaires as you’d have thought from the media stories, and now that many of those that did exist have gone back to zero, I wonder what they miss most – the money or the legend? Sarsgaard’s character falls right in line with movie archetypes from the frontier sheriff to the spaceship captain.

The result is that The Center of the World ends up playing two rather desperate myths off against each other, not surprisingly forcing a draw. He says the center of the world is the computer; she says it’s the female anatomy. This implies a fixed opposition that doesn’t really exist – Sarsgaard’s playing of the character is so openly needy that it’s hard to believe he means what he says. And Wang provides enough information on Parker to let us know she harbors uncertainty over the path she’s following. In the last scene, Sarsgaard’s still reaching out to her and she’s still hiding behind a pose. Superficially he looks like the patsy. But what is she holding back for? Is she hurting him, or herself?

The film makes good use of its Vegas setting, especially a recurring cityscape including a faux Statue of Liberty, a faux Eiffel Tower and a rollercoaster: an incoherent jumble of cultural references, squeezing the world into a few blocks. The characters barely leave the hotel room, but it’s possible to feel how Vegas’ extremely mixed messages (simultaneously a Mecca to some and a hellhole of crassness to others) influences their positioning. In this regard, the film recalls how Wang drew on similarly evocative environments in Chinese Box particularly.

21st century

But the film generally feels thin and underdeveloped – and it’s reminiscent of earlier Wang films in this regard too. The truth is: two people playing sex games can hardly avoid making for an interesting movie, and I’m not sure The Center of the World does much more than cover the bases. The ad quotes Ebert and Roeper hailing the film “A Last Tango in Paris for the 21st Century,” but if so that only tells us to expect an artistically parched 21st century. As further evidence, the duo also considered The Claim to be a McCabe and Mrs. Miller for the 21st century. I shudder to think what the 21st century’s L’Avventura or Breathless may look like.

Last Tango in Paris has a density of interrogation that goes far beyond Wang’s film. And I haven’t mentioned yet that The Center of the World’s website apparently includes a rather nifty interactive sex feature with a digitally created hooker. To me that sounds like Wang has too much willingness to experiment. Last Tango’s Bernardo Bertolucci may not be the man he was, but I don’t think he’s quite reached that point yet.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Modern musical

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2001)

There’s a new musical to write about – Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. It’s a frantically paced story of love and loss in 1900 Paris, with Nicole Kidman as the cabaret star and Ewan McGregor as the starving artist who falls for her, even though she’s in the grip of a jealous baron who can break the show.

I get to write about musicals so seldom – a reference point seems even more necessary than usual. A few months ago, I was watching Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, which is probably my favourite of all movie musicals. When I’d finished, I was so exhilarated (this on a ninth or tenth viewing) that I rewound the tape to show my wife two things that sum up my love for the movie. First – Fred Astaire’s rendition of “By Myself,” filmed in one smooth unbroken take as he ambles along a railway platform. Second, his more energetic “Shine on your Shoes” number, in which he taps and leaps around a vast varied set of props. This too is shot in very few takes, and provides a sense of unbroken movement, but I was struck by one point at the end where Minnelli does make a cut, coinciding with a key transition point in the score, setting up a new camera angle and rhythm that electrify the routine’s final section. I doubt there’s anything technically that hot about this edit, but if anything about the framing or the timing weren’t exactly that, it would jar. Its greatness lies in invisibility.

The Band Wagon

For me, The Band Wagon is one of Hollywood’s happiest accidents – not that I don’t think Minnelli and the crew knew what they were doing, but I always think the end result has a sublimity that transcends anything they could specifically have had in mind. It’s just a simple fable about a fading song and dance man who comes back to Broadway to star in a pretentious “modern version of Faust” that’s an instant flop, then saves the day by retooling the show into an old-fashioned vaudeville revue. One of the things that intrigues me is that the reversal into simpler and happier showbiz values is so comprehensive that it comes to represent some kind of world view – Astaire and Cyd Charisse get together at the end, but never talk about love, only about showbiz (in a Howard Hawks movie this could be a randy metaphor but in The Band Wagon it seems like a vaguely traumatic displacement). Around the time he made the film, Minnelli was starting to digress from musicals to make intense psychological dramas like The Cobweb and Lust for Life, and it’s not stretching things too much to see The Band Wagon as a study in various kinds of derangement, made delicious by the fact that it’s simultaneously as poised and alluring as anything could be.

The Band Wagon is just one example of what movie musicals never do anymore; it exhibits complete mastery over a genre, and then goes further. Every time we get a musical now it’s an event in itself, just by virtue of being a musical, and there’s no possibility of just playing it straight. Lars Von Trier in last year’s Dancer in the Dark deconstructed the genre – it was an interesting film, but surely the project was too inherently marginal to engender real excitement. Evita was just too much of everything all over. For me, Woody Allen got surprisingly close in Everyone Says I Love You, Maybe it helped there that Allen didn’t seem to have taken that much more care over the film than he does over his normal efforts – at least it didn’t seem paralyzed and squeezed by the technical demands.

Your Song

Moulin Rouge seems to aspire at times to avoid cutting altogether – through computer-aided swoops across space and time, the film creates one continuum of experience after another. At other times Luhrmann hardly lets a single image hold the frame for a second, throwing together breathless montages of incident and rushing color; the early scenes in the club really do evoke Impressionist paintings come to life. When it’s firing on all cylinders, the film seems madly in love with the process of image making, with the evocation of panache and emotion and excitement. Although notionally set in 1900 Paris, the film is hardly tied to that period in its sensibility – most prominently in the music, which encompasses a selection of pop standards from Bowie to Nirvana. Catherine Tunnacliffe in Eye suggested that the  film’s meaning – as a kaleidoscope of imagery and music from the past 100 years – might have been clearer if it had been released, as originally planned, in the final days of the year 2000: “Luhrmann accurately identifies the 20th century’s main obsession – glamour – and Moulin Rouge elevates superficiality to high art.”

This is maybe most striking in how the film constantly hammers on the supposed transcendent beauty of Elton John’s “Your Song” – for purposes of the movie the lyrics are written by McGregor’s character, and they’re constantly referred to by the characters as a beautiful evocation of a purer sensibility. This is so overdone and self-evidently suspect that the film indeed seems to be laying its superficiality bare. But what kind of achievement is that really? And so goes my reaction to the whole film – nothing in it seems intended to be taken at face value, and yet no other value is proffered. Take the casting for instance. Nicole Kidman’s rather neutrally pretty features and alabaster reticence hardly serve to create a specific presence – she serves as a Lulu-kind of concoction. And Ewan McGregor goes through the movie looking much too pleased with himself. The supporting players are more vibrant, but whoever heard of a musical without stars?

A thousand words

It was long ago established that a picture is worth a thousand words, and Moulin Rouge now confirms that a picture may also be worth a thousand pictures. Current technology and expertise allow the flow of Luhrmann’s imagination to be presented on screen virtually unimpeded. If your imagination happens to fall within the exact same contours as his, then I imagine Moulin Rouge may seem a perfect film. Otherwise you may just wonder what you’re supposed to do with the thing. In its second half especially, I thought the film frequently committed the cardinal sin of being profoundly repetitive. Everything in it seems profoundly necessary in that you feel the weight of Luhrmann’s commitment and ambition to every moment, but this entails, of course, that the whole thing seems entirely dispensable. I hate to sound like the kind of traditionalist old fogy that the bright new vision of Moulin Rouge might have hoped to sweep aside, but Minnelli and Astaire achieved much more with less. There’s real joy and sadness in The Band Wagon, sometimes simultaneously, and I still long for a new musical that can come close to that.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Best of 2001

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2002)

These are the ten films (listed here in the order of their commercial release) that most stayed with me once the lights came up. Apologies to any masterpieces released at the very end of the year. See you in 2002!

The Pledge (Sean Penn)

Penn’s film lacks the constant rigor and assurance that could have made it a masterpiece, but it’s often extraordinary – one of the great detective movies in which the case at hand is the least of what’s being investigated. Jack Nicholson plays a cop who promises a dead girl’s mother to bring the perpetrator to justice – the film’s greatest strength is its accumulating ambiguity over what havoc his commitment has wreaked on his soul. Nicholson gives one of his greatest performances in years – a stripped-down portrayal of a decent, polite man of modest resources. Unfortunately, this imaginative, deeply skeptical film was poorly marketed as a straightforward thriller and quickly disappeared.

YiYi (Edward Yang)

Yang’s three-hour Taiwanese epic is probably the very best film of the year – completely successful both as entertainment and as art – an intricately calculated film with such poise and grace that it often appears to have been dreamt rather than constructed. Providing a very specific portrait of contemporary Taiwan and of its few main characters (built around a family in which all the members are in some form of transition), it’s visually and thematically dense while always seeming pragmatic. It’s “positive” enough that it can be advertised as uplifting and life-affirming, and yet holds back from offering any false buoyancy. I saw YiYi twice and could easily have gone again.

The Wind will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami)

I first saw this at the 1999 film festival: watching it again on its commercial release, it seemed less striking as an uplifting conclusion on the value of being alive (as I first wrote), and more so as a depiction of the perpetual struggle that constitutes life. The protagonist is an “engineer” who’s come to a small town for a purpose that’s never quite defined – much of the action is offscreen, and the character is frequently climbing or descending, searching, or realigning himself in some way. The dialogue keeps circling back to repeated questions or assertions like a weird variation on David Mamet. It’s eerie and mysterious, rich and powerful.

George Washington (David Gordon Green)

For a while, Green’s film about a group of kids hanging out in a derelict corner of North Carolina seems a bit limited and repetitive. But as the film’s narrative becomes stranger (and it gets quite strange), everything else about it becomes richer, culminating in a series of images that’s almost hallucinatory. In part it’s about the tentative way people attempt to anchor themselves in their environments and in their own skins; but it’s also a pure creation of the imagination – it could have been documentary or teen movie or much else, but found a muse that makes it all of these, and none of them.

The Man who Cried (Sally Potter)

Potter’s epic of sorts, with international settings and a big name cast, is directed at times as though she were dutifully keeping the financiers’ interests in mind. But at other times it’s bracingly experimental (even if slightly naively so). With Christina Ricci’s cool reserve working well as a dancer in Paris during World War Two – probing her own mysterious past while negotiating the confusion of the times – the film transforms itself at the end into a joyously melodramatic concoction. The film seems designed to be susceptible to analysis in the same way that film theorists mull over Bette Davis’ 1940’s films, and it comes pretty close.

Apocalypse Now Redux (Francis Coppola)

The re-release of Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam odyssey, with fifty minutes of added material, was one of the year’s great events in cinema. The new sequences make Redux less of a pure war film and more an abstract meditation on political, cultural and psychological confusion (with Vietnam being one of the all-time great media for such a project); more effectively leading the way now to the famously murky finale where Martin Sheen finds the missing Marlon Brando. It’s no great shakes as politics or analysis, and its energy sometimes seems touched by naivete, but no “new” movie had even half as much going on.

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)

Lynch’s movie seems to be one thing for the first ninety minutes (a pseudo-detective story with a young actress and a femme fatale, with hints of various conspiracies around the edges), then changes direction entirely. In broad terms, it seems to me mainly about the narcissism and self-absorption at the heart of Hollywood. It’s stayed in my mind – not so much because of its narrative mysteries, but because of the sense that Lynch has captured the complexities of something real and significant while still indulging his considerable idiosyncrasies to the hilt.

Chunhyang (Im Kwon-Taek)

An old man on a stage sings the story of a nobleman’s son who falls in love with a courtesan’s daughter. The film melts into the past, where the story is sumptuously recreated. The film works as a record of a stage performance, as a historical recreation of immense poise and visual imagination, and in its combination of the two as an artistic construct. The plot turns on an act of female defiance that’s presented here for maximum impact and political clout, making the film equally effective as dialectic.

The Taste of Others (Agnes Jaoui)

Wonderfully structured French comedy of relationships, built around a businessman who falls in love with a sad actress and for the first time develops an artistic sensibility. Everything in the film is counterbalanced and proportioned, and it’s often very funny. “Can’t you see?” says one character in desperation, “Some things go together, others don’t.” The fun of the movie is in keeping us guessing about what falls into what category. Its great insight is in its full and mature depiction of the fluidity of the categories themselves.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Chris Columbus)

My favourite big-budget release of the year. Some said it was overly literal-minded, but I don’t know the book. I found the film remarkably engaging, even enchanting, yielding one revelation after another. Certainly, the more intimate concepts often come off better than the more obvious spectacles (which sometimes have too much of that distancing computer-generated look about them), but there’s enough magical stuff here to sweep aside all reservations, and the cast is excellent. Now if someone would just explain Quidditch to me…Harry New Year!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Robot child

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2001)

Steven Spielberg’s first film in four years, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, takes place in a depleted future world where mankind is physically and emotionally dependent on robotic technology; they cook, they clean, they even have sex with us. It’s about a robotic child (Haley Joel Osment) so perfectly engineered that he’s virtually indistinguishable from a real boy. When he’s rejected by his human family, he wanders for some time on the fringes of society, accompanied by another android (Jude Law) and a robotic bear called Teddy, obsessed with the idea that the story of Pinocchio – particularly the Blue Fairy that transformed that wooden boy into flesh and blood – can be made real, allowing him to become human and attain the bond he craves with his owner/mother. The movie’s final section, following this quest as far as it can go, entails a huge change in his and the film’s frames of reference.

Stanley Kubrick (again!)

As everyone knows by now, A.I. was largely developed by the late Stanley Kubrick, who passed it on to Spielberg with his blessing, apparently judging it more fitting to the other man’s sensibility than his own. Maybe it’s a mistake to dwell too much on the Kubrick connection. A. O. Scott in his New York Times review mentioned Kubrick only in a single paragraph, noting the differences in the two men’s sensibilities but not dwelling much on how the finished film might reflect these. Maybe it’s not coincidental that Scott gave the film one of its most enthusiastic write-ups, considering it “the best fairy tale – the most disturbing, complex and intellectually challenging boy’s adventure story – Mr. Spielberg has made.” But most of the reviews I read concentrated much more, sometimes to an almost forensic extent, on doing a Kubrick-centered autopsy of the movie, generally to A.I.’s detriment in one way or another.

It’s certainly not hard to draw parallels between A.I. and Kubrick’s work – in particular, the middle section has a resemblance to A Clockwork Orange and some aspects of the ending evoke that of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I can’t imagine the film would have been very similar in Kubrick’s hands. Whether or not you view it in terms of the difference between Kubrick’s analytical instincts and Spielberg’s supposedly greater sentimentality, Kubrick’s version would surely have avoided the over-determination and intellectual timidity that drags down Spielberg’s.

Cold and warm

Kubrick’s films deliberately resist easy identification with the characters: Spielberg invites it, but not always effectively. No actor has ever won an Oscar in a Spielberg film – relatively few have been nominated. His films are so structurally and technically seamless that the actors seem almost like afterthoughts. Kubrick was famous for filming dozens of takes of a scene and then selecting a version that showed the actors at their least naturalistic. But at least this evidenced a fascination with human mystery and with how that behaviour would be intercepted by the viewer.

Films like The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut certainly elide some of the narrative that we might have expected from other directors, and they’re problematic for numerous reasons, but they also contain utterly distinctive characters that resist easy (if not any sort of) summary. There’s certainly nothing of Kubrick left in this aspect of A.I. I’m hard-pressed to name a single surprising or intriguing moment by any of its actors. This isn’t to say they’re not adept: Osment and Law in particular are both note-perfect, but it’s a boring perfection of a boring note.

Still, this in itself wouldn’t have ruled out A.I. from comparison with 2001. The greater disappointment for me is how linear Spielberg’s film turns out to be. Maybe there’s some mild innovation in the way it splits into three quite distinct sections. But Kubrick’s films do much more than that – they play with our sense of time (both our own and the characters’), they offer apparent closure that isn’t really so, bizarrely extend certain scenes while omitting others that ought to have been there, they double back on themselves, they start right in the middle of something and end just as abruptly. The thrill of his films is often in something as basic as figuring out what they’re really about.

Spielberg’s film is full of memorable compositions or moments of emotional underlining. But when it starts off with a voice over explaining the state of the planet, followed by a long scene in which professor William Hurt portentously sets out for his students the key questions in robot ethics, you immediately realize how little genuine mystery the film will be allowed to contain.

Definition of the human

A.I. is like this throughout, but especially at the end, where some of the stuff that’s put before us (for example, about the rules of the “space time continuum”) is ridiculously contrived. Even if the film’s ideas seemed profound, I doubt that they’d be best communicated in such a way (which I think borders on the condescending). But what are those ideas anyway? The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, in a surprisingly positive review, said: “It’s hard to think of a more important theme than the definition and survival (or nonsurvival) of the human.” Sure, but the film seems to me more like a statement of that theme than a consideration of it. Obviously, if robots are so much like people that no one can tell the difference, then it poses a question over what it means to be human. But I just told you that much in one sentence, and A.I. can take it no further. Time and time again, it reminded me not of Kubrick but of Chris Columbus’ sappy Bicentennial Man, which also dealt with an emotionally precocious robot aspiring to the condition of humanity.

To sum it up then, I was intrigued but  not particularly excited by the delicate handling of the opening domestic section, I was disappointed by Spielberg’s failure to punch home the middle big bad world section, and I found the final chapter by far the weakest of the three. The film works best as a pure fairy tale, but even on that level it’s diminished by the over-explicit evocation of Pinocchio. As a creation that might be satisfying to adults, it’s severely compromised. Some of the potentially darkest strands (there’s something more than a little creepy about the robot kid’s growing obsession with his mother) are treated so lackadaisically that it’s hard to know if Spielberg’s even aware of them. We can’t know where Kubrick’s version would have ended up, but for good or bad, it’s inconceivable it would have left us so little to think about afterwards.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

This is the sixth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

Sex and Lucia (Julio Medem)

Yet another movie that traffics in vaguely mystical coincidences and connections and overlapping fates, designed for audiences who believe both in crossword puzzles and in angels. This time round there’s more sex than usual in the air, but to me this only made the movie seem even more calculated. The protagonist is a young woman who falls madly in love with a novelist; the film cuts between the story of their relationship (first the sex, then the mooning around) and a few years later, when she flees to a remote island after she believes he’s been killed. Events are complicated further by the writer’s discovery of a 4-year-old daughter, fathered during a fling on that same remote island; while he gets to know the kid, he also writes a novel about it (you can probably see how this could get tangled). The movie is certainly accomplished, but it lacks the wide-eyed charm of Medem’s earlier Lovers of the Arctic Circle, and seems too much like a reworking of the earlier film rather than a project with its own distinct hear. The actors generally seem rather distant (maybe that’s meant to be wistful and seductive) and even though the film constantly generates possible subtexts, themes and so forth, you generally feel it’s too smart-alecky a project to deserve them.

The Sun behind the Moon (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

With its scene of young boys being taught Kalashnikovs along with the Koran, this film was an especially unsettling viewing experience for the Saturday following September 11. It’s built around an expatriate Afghani journalist trying to travel to the town of her birthplace to her maimed sister (who’s written a letter describing her intention of killing herself during the next eclipse). With only days to go, the journalist tries everything to complete the journey. The film contains many startling scenes and images: a Red Cross outpost where two young female doctors deal with dozens of local men, all on crutches after land-mine accidents and squabbling over scarce pairs of artificial limbs; the bright colors of a veiled wedding party trekking through the desert, seeming as much a threat as a celebration; an African-American doctor who to observe local custom can view his female patients only through a tiny peephole. Otherwise the landscape  (captured here in what often seems like geographically precise detail) is largely bleak except for bandits, soldiers and land mines. The film’s voice over emphasizes particularly the plight of women in such an environment, but there’s no one in the film who’s not a prisoner of poverty, landscape and custom. The film’s ending is startlingly grim and abrupt; a quality that in the circumstances provides further cause for troubled contemplation.

Lan Yu (Stanley Kwan)

Kwan’s film is mainly interesting just for the fact that it exists – an unabashed gay love story, Chinese style, encompassing full-frontal nudity (although I could say that much about every second movie I saw at this year’s festival) and relatively little angst. True, the story has one of the lovers putting the affair on hold while he enters into a brief marriage, and the film chronicles numerous encounters in hotel rooms and out-of-the-way locations. But the tone is deliberately calm and straightforward – it’s plainly a melodrama, but doesn’t aim to pull at handkerchiefs, and the characters develop just through common-sense aging rather than through great events or traumas. The film’s elliptical style, often skipping over big blocks of time, also keeps easy emotions and identifications at arm’s length. It may seem odd, after all this, to say the film seems a bit minor – yet it carries off its chosen project so successfully that you feel it could have accommodated greater ambition. Indeed, the long closing shot, taking an urban setting and rendering it into a flickering abstract shadow, an embodiment of memory, goes on for so long that you sense a reluctance to leave it at that.

Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuaron)

After a couple of Hollywood movies, Cuaron goes home to Mexico in style with this raunchy, good-time account of two sex-obsessed male teenagers on the road with an attractive (and older) female cousin. Cuaron doesn’t so much give in as dive into the fantasy aspects of this scenario for most of the way (I assume the reader needs no further hint of what those aspects might be). But he also uses a voice-over (the equivalent of the photo inserts in Run Lola Run) that alerts us to alternative possibilities, to secrets kept by the friends from each other, and to disappointment lurking around the corner. When this extends to telling us the fortune of a herd of pigs that the heroes run into on the beach, you suspect it may be going a little far. The movie’s final stretch is surprisingly explicit both in making plain the homoerotic subtext to much of their adventures, and in putting the brakes of real life on the good times. The film is also a knowing hymn to Mexico in all its sprawling inequity, corruption and lurking dangers. Although the elements I’ve described are the heart of the film’s artistic case for itself, it’s much more a romp than anything else – if you’re not a 17-year-old boy with a perpetual boner, you may find it a little wearying..

Training Day (Antoine Fuqua)

A rookie cop spends his first day on the narcotics division with a scarily charismatic veteran who challenges (to say the least) his sense of the compromise between effectively enforcing the law and adhering to it. The movie is always too dependent on Denzel Washington as the veteran – the first hour is entertaining and well done, but never seems like more than a one-man show with some half-hearted Serpico-type moralizing thrown in. In the second half, the problems with Washington’s approach become so extreme that any serious purpose flies out the window – and even by the standards of the genre, the film falls subject to absurd coincidence, compression and general tackiness. This is yet another movie, along with Hearts in Atlantis, that makes you wonder whether the film festival shouldn’t abandon any pretense that the gala section embodies quality cinema (albeit of a more populist variety). The sloppy plotting, cynical manipulation and general lightweight approach to serious issues is the exact antithesis of what you’d hope the festival might seek to promote.