Saturday, December 31, 2011

Four current movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2007)

Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering is only a partial success, but it’s good to see the director of The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain working in an ambitious contemporary mode. Jude Law plays an architect, with a bright new office in a seedy part of London that he hopes to redevelop; in the meantime, the firm is a constant target for break-ins. After one incident he follows the perpetrator, a young Bosnian immigrant, to his house, and later makes contact with his mother, played by Juliette Binoche. They begin an affair, made easier by the architect’s strained relationship with his long-time partner (Robin Wright Penn). Emotional and familial challenges crash into economic and legal ones, bound together by a common need, as the title suggests, to break one’s current state, and find a way to re-enter.

I liked the film’s portrayal of the modern British melting pot, and Minghella’s carefully calibrated cauldron of traumas. There’s a real melancholy to this film, and it’s my favourite Law performance to date – the character is so hemmed in by professional and personal woes that the actor barely has a moment when he can merely rely on charm (in contrast, for example, to the recent The Holiday). On the other hand, the film is exceptionally contrived; it often succumbs to excessive glossiness; it’s full of standard “sensitive” dialogue; and there are several dubiously conceived characters (such as the hooker, played by Vera Farmiga, who starts hanging out with Law on his night-time building stakeouts). With a little more spontaneity, or perhaps just serendipity, this all might have coalesced into a fuller overall experience.


Some of the same caveats could apply to Billy Ray’s Breach. This tells of the capture of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, perhaps the most damaging intelligence traitor of all time, responsible for leaking untold secrets to the Soviet Union. He was also a sharer of Internet pornography (although the raciest thing we see him do in the movie is watching a Catherine Zeta-Jones DVD in his office), a strict doctrinaire Catholic, committed family man and definite right-winger. Such a character certainly seems worthy of a movie, and Chris Cooper is compelling as Hanssen, conveying both the intellect and will that allowed him to rise in the Bureau, and the dark complexity that might have led him astray. Ultimately though the film only tries to connect so many of the dots, leaving much of the mystery intact (the best guess is that it was mainly a matter of ego).

The heart of the film instead is a young operative, played by Ryan Philippe, who’s installed as Hanssen’s assistant with the secret brief of getting the goods on him. As the film presents it, it strains credibility that the Philippe character gets away with so many lucky escapes, increasingly relying on a superficial appeal to the older man’s religious faith to get out of a hole. This is particularly distracting because director Ray’s approach is low-key and functional, eschewing any kind of flash. Ultimately, although the film is more engaging overall than Robert De Niro’s recent The Good Shepherd, it’s less successful in evoking the compromises of a spy’s existence. Overall it’s not at all clear what effect Breach is aiming for.

Days of Glory

“At the 2006 Cannes Film Festival,” says the poster to Days of Glory (Indigenes), “one film was so powerful it changed the course of history.” It’s a reference to French president Jacques Chirac, who saw the film and then authorized the release of long-frozen military pensions to soldiers from France’s former African colonies. The film follows a group of these soldiers in the last year of World War II, doing much of the dirty work in the liberation of France, their official home country but also a foreign and only partly welcoming one. They suffer racism both explicit and subtle, manifested in unequal access to rations and leaves and promotions, to official disregard and cultural insensitivity (in one of the film’s few moments of relative dark humour, they’re herded together to watch a (lousy) ballet performance, which they quickly desert in disgust). Through the film they grasp at strands of hope of attaining fairness, always dashed, in a way that’s ultimately very chilling.

The film, directed by Rachid Bouchareb, was nominated this year for best foreign language film, and its main actors shared the male acting prize at Cannes last year. At times it’s rather too episodic and conventional, but then its point isn’t to remake our view of war, but rather modestly to excavate some of the stories that lie hidden in its folds. As such it’s almost a counterpoint to Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers. That film illustrated the military and political machinery’s hunger for heroes, and the institutional carelessness with which they’re created; Indigenes shows the callous disregard for heroes who don’t fit the prevailing ideology. Even when it seems the war genre has explored every possible nuance and byway of history, Bouchareb’s film is a meaningful further contribution

The Astronaut Farmer

Mark Polish’s The Astronaut Farmer has been widely criticized for wanton implausibility and hokiness, and no surprise. Former Air Force pilot Billy Bob Thornton, living the quiet family life on a Midwest ranch, is increasingly obsessed with space flight, and since the official channels are closed off to him, he sets out to build a rocket in his barn. The FAA, CIA and military all observe him with suspicion, and the locals mostly think he’s crazy, but the support of his wife (Virginia Madsen) and kids never wavers, or rather only enough to facilitate the big climax where he comes back from his lowest ebb to finally triumph (I doubt I really gave anything away there). So it’s implausible for sure, but isn’t the fixation on that point mainly a function of genre convention? When has a conflation of events like that in Babel ever “actually happened”; in what world do people “really behave” like those in The Departed? The issue rather is that an amiable family drama like The Astronaut Farmer is meant to follow different artificialities and clichés. The film seems to me a fairly witty challenge to convention, and rather subtly ambiguous (to me anyway) in its use of familiar mechanics; if you skew your mind just slightly to the left, the film seems at least radical if not anarchist; if the prototypical story of the ordinary guy who won’t give up can be so straight facedly marshaled to such an end, what are we to make of a country that bases much of its political rhetoric on this stuff? Thornton plays along perfectly with the joke, and the great Bruce Dern is in there as well.

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