Wednesday, August 21, 2013

In the trenches

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2006)

I was going to say that this week’s selection has something for everyone, but I see that I have no cartoons and no fluffy romantic comedies. That aside though, I think I’ve got it covered.

Perhaps strangely, I’ve never seen Wes Craven’s legendary The Hills Have Eyes (so many movies, so little time), but I’m sure it was more raw and provocative than Alexandre Aja’s new remake. Which is not to say that Aja’s film isn’t pretty good. It struck me as extremely proficient, deftly poised between seductive menace and slam-whoosh horror, as a family’s trailer breaks down in the desert, exposing them to crazed mutants left behind from 50’s nuclear experiments. Aja’s pretty unsparing with this stuff, although it ultimately focuses on a pretty familiar transformation of mild gun-loathing Democrat into bloodied axe-wielding revenger (for those who identified with my column of a couple of weeks back, it may be helpful to know that the resourceful dog Beast plays a big role in things). Potential undercurrents abound, although as subversive social commentary goes (and, for that matter, sheer nastiness) it doesn’t quite match the recent Hostel. Still, as they say, for those who like this sort of thing, this is definitely what they like.

The Old School

Even more horrible in its own esoteric way, Laurence Dunmore’s film The Libertine could almost have been explicitly conceived as the antithesis of Lasse Hallstrom’s recent sunny version of Casanova. In this version, the 17th century “pleasure” seeker – played rigorously by Johnny Depp – addresses the camera at the start to tell us we will not like him, and the film hardly ever dilutes that promise: it’s as miserable as anything you’ll see this year, suffused in a sickly green reflecting his inner decrepitude. It’s initially somewhat tedious, although always well written and true to its obscure project, but only becomes really fascinating as the character’s self-destructiveness bears a rotting fruit, with his face peeling away from the pox. For those who like this sort of thing…well actually, I’m not sure there’s any such group.

Meanwhile, over at the old school, 75-year-old director Richard Donner just delivered 16 Blocks, starring Bruce Willis, limping and creaking as if he’s in his eighties. In a retread of Clint Eastwood’s Gauntlet set-up, Willis is the unheralded New York cop who’s meant to deliver a witness (motor-mouth Mos Def) to the courthouse and has two hours to do it, but if the witness testifies, a lot of other cops go down, and they’re out to make sure he doesn’t make it. There’s very little surprising in the movie – except maybe the extreme paucity of lines given to the taciturn Willis – and it has limited energy for sure, but you know, I actually liked it. Admittedly it’s all pros and cons. Despite using Toronto to substitute for New York in some scenes, it has a good sense of the bustling street…but it’s unrealistic with its ticking clock conceit. The solid, unadorned nature of the action is an appealing contrast to so much contemporary digital overkill…but is it really worth the ten bucks? Maybe the movie’s most cutting-edge effect is in how it effortlessly prompts the following thought: Wait for the DVD rental.

Death and Dust

Nothing in 16 Blocks has the visceral impact of the opening scenes of Omagh, and how could it, for this is a recreation of a 1998 bombing that killed 29 people in Northern Ireland. Gerald McSorley plays a mechanic who lost his son, and was drawn into leading the families’ campaign for justice – a movement frustrated by evidence of institutional failures both in ignoring tip-offs prior to the bombing and in the subsequent investigation of it. McSorley’s quiet performance provides much of the film’s impact, for in truth, after the gripping beginning, Omagh is somewhat conventional in its approach, and doesn’t seem entirely equal to the immense complexity of its subject matter. As in so many such films, family dynamics are given perhaps excessive weight in the overall scheme. Still, it’s a sobering and instructive experience.

Back to the old school, although this one’s in a more refined part of town – Ask the Dust is only the fourth film directed by 71-year-old Robert Towne, who’s best known as a screenwriter. Based on a novel by John Fante, this project has long been a dream of Towne’s, and one senses a desire here to create something truly iconic about early 20th-century LA, just as he did with Chinatown. It’s about a romance between a struggling young writer (Colin Farrell) and a Mexican waitress (Salma Hayek) – their trajectory is familiar, but receives seasoning here in particular from the prevailing notions of ethnic propriety, which clash in particular with the woman’s strong will. Farrell is unfortunately bland, Hayek’s performance never really gels, and the movie around them – although handsome and careful - seems oddly under populated and disembodied. It’s as if Towne had already made the thing in his head too often, so that the passion dissipated, leaving little more than a skeleton.

Joyeux Noel

Joyeux Noel, directed by Christian Carion, was France’s entry for this year’s foreign language film Oscar. They should have nominated Cache. But as glossy middlebrow creations go, Joyeux Noel is not at all bad. In Christmas 1914, German and French and Scottish soldiers are mired in the trenches, so close they can hear into each others’ territory. Lured by Scottish bagpipes and a German soprano, they slowly venture into the intervening no man’s land, and suddenly hostilities are forgotten as they declare a makeshift truce, sharing rations and alcohol, participating in a joint Mass, playing soccer and collectively burying their dead.

The First World War was of course particularly brutal and callous, and the movie skillfully exploits the power of its central concept – petty moralizing and strategizing swept sway into a sea of interchangeable faces. The real impact though comes subsequently, when all three commanding officers are severely reprimanded. Most chilling is the Scottish bishop who sweeps onto the scene, sends packing the priest who ministered to the opposing troops, and delivers a substitute sermon. The war, he asserts, represents “the forces of good against the forces of evil…a crusade…to save the freedom of the world.” He commands them: “With God’s help, you must kill the Germans, good or bad, young or old…”

And here we are almost a century later, with God and other deities still as easily misappropriated for the sake of State-sponsored murder and cataclysm. Joyeux Noel can’t help but seem relevant, and while at least we’ve mostly moved beyond the particularly degrading combat tactics it depicts, this has done little to deflate mass gullibility, as seen in the broad willingness to subjugate all other issues or imperatives to neurotic notions of national security. I’m aware that I’m spilling a little beyond my mandate here, which I suppose is just a way of saying that the film’s messaging works, in an old school kind of way. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

July movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2004)
Some notes on four current movies.
Spider-Man 2
Several reviewers have said that Spider-Man 2 may be the best comic book film ever made, and the praise is at the very least plausible. I guess I could spend a future article musing on why so many capable directors – Bryan Singer, Ang Lee, Christopher Nolan with the forthcoming Batman - seem gripped by the ambition to conquer this genre. I suspect the answer is not that encouraging for cinema’s future. Regardless, Spider-Man’s Sam Raimi is at the head of the class for now; he maximizes his film’s nuance and flourish, crams the movie with deft throwaways, and makes it look easy. In a performance for which the phrase “that’s why he earns the big bucks” might have been invented, Tobey Maguire is virtually mesmerizing, conveying Peter Parker’s full range of preoccupation and inner conflict without negating the character’s heroism. Audiences will lap up Parker taking his costume to the laundromat (the colour runs) or having to take the elevator to the ground after his powers temporarily desert him at the top of a building. My own favourite moment was the dumb ice-breaking joke that Alfred Molina throws out to the assembled audience before unveiling his history-making scientific breakthrough.
It goes wrong, of course, and Molina is transformed into the evil Dr. Octopus, robbing banks, planning an experiment that will blow up half of New York, and kidnapping Parker’s beloved Kirsten Dunst. But despite some good action scenes, the villain isn’t very significant to the film’s overall impact, making you wish that they’d gone one step further and jettisoned the convention altogether – that would have been truly radical. That aside, the film is still constricted by plotting that’s a bit too tidy, and it occasionally lapses into digital overkill. But after the way Ang Lee was utterly crushed in his attempt to intellectualize The Hulk, genre fans will probably find the limitations of Spider-Man 2 easy to ignore.
At one point in De-Lovely, Kevin Kline as Cole Porter takes a shot at Michael Curtiz’ Night and Day, the 1946 biopic that cast Cary Grant as Porter. In the circumstances, it struck me as a cheap shot. Curtiz, at least, could blame the restrictions of the studio system and of the times generally for his film’s deficiencies. But De-Lovely’s director Irwin Winkler surely has no one to blame but himself. A chronically inadequate filmmaker, Winkler’s approach to Porter is like playing In the Still of the Night on a power hammer.
The movie’s big advance over Night and Day lies in its ability to be open about Porter’s homosexuality, although given the scrubbed goings-on here, it’s a relative advance at best. Kline is stodgy and Ashley Judd, as his wife, a non-presence. But the film’s true failure lies in its approach to the music. Winkler frames the film with a bizarre structure in which the dying Porter has his life presented to him in a deserted theatre by some kind of supernatural emissary. In tandem with how many of the musical performances in the film are clearly in a modern idiom, and with such anachronistic but politically correct details as the large number of black faces in view, this might have heralded an arm’s length, essayistic approach. But then the rest of the movie is mainly a conventional, dreary trudge through the highlights of Porter’s biography. Some of the musical numbers, with middle-aged, graceless performers lumbering through leaden choreography, are as horrifying as anything you’ll see on screen this year.
The film hasn't the slightest insight into the man’s muse, his talents, his demons or his influence, and isn’t even clear on the most basic details of his life. I got no kick out of it.
The Mother
Roger Michell’s film is one of the year’s most intriguing, subtle character studies. A woman in her sixties loses her husband during a trip from suburbia to visit their two adult children in London; unable to face going back home, she stays on in the city, and starts an affair with a building contractor who’s also bedding her daughter. The woman is played by Anne Reid, a little-known actress who’s absolutely remarkable here, allowing dowdy mumsiness and all-consuming sexuality to coexist not just in the same character, but often in the same moment. Without ever lapsing into being melodramatic or overtly conceptual, the film turns an archetype on its head – instead of a nurturing centre of stability, the mother becomes a transgressive force, with her children’s over-extended lives collapsing around her. The contractor, conceived as a Brando like force of nature, laps her up  - sure, because he never turns down anything, but also because he’s touched and excited by a corresponding desire. It can’t last of course, but the film avoids easy outcomes, working towards an extremely well balanced outcome.
The Mother is, among other things, a comprehensive critique of the institution of marriage, and an alert portrayal of how London kills you (to cite an earlier film by screenwriter Hanif Kureishi). It’s an absorbing work in all respects, and director Michell (who made Notting Hill and Changing Lanes) brings to it a precise, slightly chilly style that’s right on the money.
The Clearing
If we didn’t have films as good as The Mother, we might not as easily recognize the limitations of films like The Clearing. Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge, it stars Robert Redford as a wealthy businessman kidnapped by struggling blue-collar Willem Dafoe, and Helen Mirren as his wife; the movie cuts between the two men trudging through the woods as Dafoe delivers Redford to his accomplices, and Mirren ‘s interactions with family and FBI.

The film doesn’t have a very satisfactory payoff in the usual action movie sense, and it’s appealing to view it as an existential creation in which the external drama is merely an index for an internal repositioning (or clearing, if you will) that forms the film’s real intent. If you look at it this way, the film’s use of Redford is rather interesting. Of all the great actor/stars from the 70’s, he’s the one who’s remained the most inscrutable, and The Clearing might be toying with his self-regard, confining his role almost entirely to flashbacks and deconstructing the character until there’s virtually nothing of him left.
It doesn’t really work though, because while Brugge (making his debut as a director here after being a producer on The Insider and others) has a reasonable feeling for cinema, he lacks a feeling for life. The film is academically interesting, but has not a single moment that’s unposed or allowed to spill outside the governing design.

Pierre Etaix

There was a brief period when I’d seen more films by the French director Pierre Etaix than by almost any other foreign director, because they were shown on UK Channel Four (i.e. the fourth of the four existing channels) in the early eighties – and in the early evening yet! I have an indelible memory of talking to one of my friends about them, which might make us sound like highbrows, but that really wasn’t it – in matters of TV viewing (as in just about everything else) you took what you could get, and because the poles of art and entertainment hadn’t yet diverged as hopelessly as they have now, it sometimes happened that you got something really good! But after that I didn’t think about Etaix again for years – and, sadly, there wouldn’t have been much point to it if I had: his films were unavailable for decades due to legal issues

Happy Anniversary

It’s all become available again in the last few years though, and Criterion recently issued a boxed set of Etaix’s entire oeuvre, consisting of just five features and three shorts. If not necessarily the most culturally or aesthetically significant release of the year, it must be among the most purely appealing and pleasurable, and with one of the most peculiar underlying biographies. Etaix was born in 1928, and performed as a clown in his early years; he met Jacques Tati, and was an assistant director on his 1958 film Mon Oncle. A few years later he started making his own films – and won a short subject Oscar in 1962 for the second, Happy Anniversary. In 1971 he joined a touring circus company and never directed again, except for some TV work in the late eighties (I’m not sure if Etaix ever made a serious attempt to return to the cinema – in a recent documentary included in the Criterion release, he talks about his hope of directing again, even in his 80’s). He acted here and there though, most intriguingly in Jerry Lewis’ unseen The Day the Clown Cried; the two have been friends ever since they met in the mid-60’s.

One of the most remarkable things about viewing Etaix’s work is how he hit the ground running – from the start, the films are impeccably considered, paced and designed. Happy Anniversary cuts between a wife preparing a special dinner, and her husband (Etaix) rushing round to buy a gift and flowers before heading home, foiled at every turn by the horror of modern traffic and its inconsiderate drivers. The film crams a happy amount of chaos and property damage into its twelve minutes, but always feels entirely contained and unstrained: Etaix’s general stone face recalls Buster Keaton, while the chronicling of modern woes brings to mind most of the films Tati would make in subsequent years.

Le grand amour

But equally as astonishing is how rapidly Etaix evolved over his short career. Yoyo, probably his most formally ambitious work, starts with a highly stylized depiction of a rich man’s existence, before he loses everything and joins the circus; the film’s second half follows his son (also played by Etaix) as he builds the empire again. The film contains his most Keatonesque sequence, involving acrobatics around a moving vehicle, while reinventing itself over and over, almost beyond what you can keep track with. Yoyo might be the film you’d choose to persuade the uninitiated of the director’s immense facility, proud of its “low-comedy” origins, but in no way constrained by them.

My own favourite though is his last full-length narrative work, Le grand amour. It’s more conventional in its outline – a man preoccupied by the idea that he married too soon and went in the wrong direction, becoming obsessed with a younger woman who he fantasizes about as an opportunity for renewal. The comic invention is ceaseless, and again breathtakingly varied, but the undertone of pain and regret, and the swipe at the small-minded busybodies who provide the restrictive glue of society, is serious. Etaix plays his most fully developed character – he generally uses dialogue sparingly in his work, but Le grand amour may contain almost as much of it as all his other films put together – and comes closer than before to an adult engagement with sexuality. It’s a beautifully conceived and executed work in all respects.

As with Tati, notions of dehumanization occur quite often in Etaix’s work – a segment in the anthology film As long as you’ve got your health sets out how visiting the cinema has become a joyless battle with fellow patrons and unwelcoming infrastructure, before morphing into a reflection on how new-fangled consumer products threaten to turn household rituals into a farce; the following sequence depicts a population beset with stress, hopelessly dependent on medication (which circumstances then conspire to prevent people from adequately consuming). But Etaix’s films don’t generally feel like Tati’s: for instance, whereas you can almost go through a whole Tati film without ever getting a close-up, Etaix is more interested in showcasing his people (many of them the same core group of recurring performers) and the engineering of the situations. There’s a great sense of humanity in his work, which Le grand amour suggests might easily have developed and deepened further.

Land of Milk and Honey

Etaix’s last film Land of Milk and Honey was a radical change of direction though. He spent months traveling round, interviewing people about the state of things and capturing footage of various events, and then almost a year editing it into some kind of shape. He only appears at the start, in a sequence comically emphasizing the magnitude of this task; afterwards he’s only heard off-camera. The film doesn’t show the French in a very favourable light – he dwells mostly on how little people know, on their inane habits and practices, conveying a deep sense of fracture and uncertainty. The film isn’t mean-spirited (at least, not primarily) - it emphasizes how life is hard and getting harder, and it’s easy enough to view its subjects sympathetically, as individuals; collectively though, one wonders what kind of country can result from all this in the long run. As such, it seems prophetic now about the state of Europe, but it’s still less compelling viewing than his previous films.

“By some magnificent accident,” writes David Cairns in the booklet accompanying the Criterion set, “for ten years Pierre Etaix…was able to make a small suite of unique, enchanting and beautiful films. It’ s of course tempting to wish he had made more, particularly building on the fresh achievements of Le grand amour. But the message of that film, surely, is that sometimes we have to be content with what we’ve got – and what we’ve got is plenty.” Well, almost plenty anyway. I wish the films might again have the prominence where kids would talk about them at school, but I guess that only ever happened because of another magnificent, short-lived accident.

Summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2008)

Ang Lee’s Hulk movie, a few years ago, was in Roger Ebert’s words “a comic book movie for people who wouldn't be caught dead at a comic book movie,” or in other words, a movie of little interest to anyone. It was highly resourceful and even beautiful at times, with the feeling of an anguished chamber piece played out on an absurdly vast canvas, but it never felt as if the director had cracked its centre. In my review I wrote: “Lee obviously understands the Hulk’s potential as metaphor – how could you not? – but seems to have no specific strategy for unlocking it, other than to have his camera stare somewhat plaintively at the characters.”

The Incredible Hulk

The movie duly failed to spawn the intended franchise, but Marvel’s trying again with the new The Incredible Hulk. No counterintuitive artistic decisions this time round – it’s in the hands of efficient, seemingly introspection-free action director Louis Leterrier. The movie starts with Bruce Banner hiding out in Brazil, trying desperately to gain control over his affliction, while the army – viewing him as the paradigm-changing laboratory animal that might provide the key to future military glory – closes in on him. Edward Norton plays the lead role, which would have seemed like more slumming a few years ago, but his initial bloom is off now. He’s properly gloomy and focused here, nothing more. Liv Tyler is quietly affecting as the woman he loves.

It’s an effective movie with no obvious major faults, but it doesn’t give you much to think about either. Leterrier’s Hulk has much greater presence than Lee’s, but the discrepancy between the haunted actor and his computer-generated alter ego is still jarring. And contrary to my earlier “how could you not” remark, there’s little sign that this film does understand the Hulk’s potential as metaphor.

The Canadian Young People F*****g, as we must call it here, kept the media busy when it became the poster child (or would have, if its name were allowed on a poster) for perhaps wasteful and depraved government film funding. Almost inevitably, the finished product hardly supports the controversy – it’s a flat, rather joyless concoction, suggesting that the showmanship ran out after thinking up the title and general premise. Four couples and one threesome go at it, intercut in six stages, from preamble to aftermath.

Young People…

It’s not particularly raunchy or titillating, and although the five stories seem intended to provoke somewhat contrasting tones, they actually all have the same kind of so whatness. It’s also seldom particularly funny, and some of the episodes clearly miss the intended mark – one strand appears to be intended as a “biter bit” kind of tale, but it’s so murkily set out that it’s hard to tell. It doesn’t feel particularly Canadian, except in the rather dispiriting sense that you suspect it would have had more distinctive colour if it had been made virtually anywhere else (maybe it’s telling that the most calculating character is actually British). And, likely, it would have had more of what the title promises.

The British film Irina Palm is basically pretty silly, but has some of the ingrained grubbiness that YPF might have benefited from. Marianne Faithfull (enigmatically but effectively flat and frumpy) is an inconspicuous widow who urgently needs money to finance her sick grandson’s operation; misunderstanding the meaning of a “hostess wanted” sign in a Soho window, she finds herself a sex worker, servicing unseen males through a hole in the wall. She turns out to be great at it, and soon has regular line-ups of clients waiting for their turn with the mysterious Irina Palm, as the boss christens her.

The film has elements of a distorted (sure, very distorted) fairy tale, ending up on a warped note of self-empowerment, crossed with truly ridiculous romance. It’s entertaining enough viewing, and I always have a soft spot for these nutty misbegotten productions that somehow make it to life – often, as in this case, by stringing together bits of finance from virtually every country in the European Union. I can’t imagine what Luxembourg or Belgium (to name a couple of the credited backers) thought they’d get out of this, but we all know the Europeans have it figured out better than we do in some ways at least (see preceding comments).

The Happening

I’ve beaten up M. Night Shyamalan’s films quite a few times in this space – this is a popular bandwagon now, but I believe the record shows that I was securely perched on there before everyone else jumped on board. I did myself, and perhaps all of us, a favour by skipping his last one, Lady in the Water, but I ventured back into the wasteland for The Happening, a title that reminds me of that old sixties chestnut, Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title. The premise here is an unknown force, perhaps emanating from plant life, that has people suddenly becoming suicidal – starting in the cities and working outward, it almost eradicates the entire north eastern US in just a day (so there go Obama’s chances). Mark Wahlberg is a science teacher/everyman caught up in the evacuation, somehow muddling through with his wife (Zooey Deschanel) as all around them gradually succumb.

The high-concept premise is in line with Shyamalan’s previous works, but the general tone and execution largely isn’t. His normal pretentiousness is well under wraps here, as if he was truly chastened by the beatings he’s taken – in fact, the film is oddly non-committal on many fronts. He sprinkles in more explicit nastiness than usual, and it’s somewhat creepy at times, although the occasional echoes of George Romero’s recent Diary of the Dead show up Shyamalan’s lack of whatever you call the death genre equivalent of joie de vivre. This extends to Wahlberg’s extremely reticent performance, and to the failure to exploit the imaginative casting of the kooky Deschanel. Still, despite its clearly minor status, by not being actively annoying and off-putting, the film represents a relative triumph for the director.

Peter Berg’s Hancock, about a drunken, abrasive superhero undergoing an image clean-up, sounds like another comic book movie for people who wouldn’t be caught dead at same, and promisingly starts out that way; Will Smith plays committedly mean-spirited, and Berg finds some room for intimacy among the digital pixels. Then it takes a sharp turn and becomes all mythological and ornate, to no great end. It’s hard to imagine this was the best possible use of the general concept. But the way things are going, it can only be a matter of time before a movie places its Clark Kent/Bruce Wayne not in a newspaper office or mansion or science lab, but in the grubby milieu of an Irina Palm. Or in the midst of Young Superheroes F*****g.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Multiple Lindas

The new film Lovelace stars Amanda Seyfried as Linda Boreman, who starred in 1972 in Deep Throat, one of the most famous and profitable of pornographic films, built around the conceit of a character (that is, “Linda Lovelace”) with unusual sexual wiring (that’s the cleanest I could make that description). The film made Boreman/Lovelace briefly famous, but she later claimed her husband of the time, Chuck Traynor, forced her into the porn business and kept all the money she made from the film (which anyway, given she didn’t have any entitlement to any of the profits, wasn’t much). She found some version of God, divorced Traynor and married a blue collar guy, with whom she lived in Long Island and had two children. She became an anti-pornography crusader, although she later said she felt used by that movement too, and by her mid-forties she was willing to do a pictorial for a magazine called Leg Show. She underwent a liver transplant, and died from injuries she received in a car accident, at the age of 53.

Deep Throat

Looking at Deep Throat now, she seems like a glum, forlorn personality; you want to believe that even without hindsight, the undercurrent of compulsion or abuse should have been obvious to anyone. If it wasn’t, it might be because everyone else in the movie either looks lousy too, or seems out of it, or both; Lovelace doesn’t address this completely, but suggests the rejection of more conventionally sculptured beauty (even by the standards of then, let alone of now) was at least partly deliberate. This was surely pivotal to its right time/right place impact:  if conventional porn is a plummet into fantasy – an expression of a wish that women would have no desires, no sense of limits, no personality at all really, beyond what’s relevant to pleasuring a man – Deep Throat feels, despite its central conceit, more tethered to humdrum realities of flesh and psyche. It’s relatively businesslike about the money shots, and about concepts of sexual dysfunction; its genuine delight at the idea of Linda’s supposed special talents feels almost endearingly desperate (the movie is an explicit comedy, by the way, to a degree most pornography couldn’t possibly allow itself to be). The director’s artistic pretensions manifest themselves in bursts of silly soundtrack music and montages; most viewers surely always laughed at least in part at it rather than with it, but as it happened, this facilitated its becoming a guilt-free communal experience, rather than a furtive one.

This is hindsight again of course, but it seems to follow from the above that there could never have been much of an aftermath for Linda Lovelace. True consumers of pornography needed to return to darker and less populated rooms; for other casual visitors, the film provided no reason to return – on the contrary, the spectacle would only grow mundane at best, ugly at worst. Famous forty years too early to slide into reality shows, internet or other pop culture self-abasement, Linda made just two more failed films in the next few years, including Deep Throat II,  before moving on with her life.

Sexual Revolution

The curator of the website writes that she was “THE symbol of sexual revolution in the 1970s,” but that only seems true in the sense that profound ambiguity about the motivations of its female participants was inherent to that “revolution.” It’s certainly tempting to view Linda as an embodiment of victimhood, except that her narrative is too extreme and strange to seem like a meaningful window on oppression or exploitation more generally. It feels like a history that might productively be explored by multiple filmmakers, and indeed, there’s apparently another version of the material in the immediate pipeline (once intended to star Lindsay Lohan, whose current film The Canyons might be seen in part as an alternative treatment of the story). In the meantime, Lovelace (also available on demand) seldom feels entirely equal to the possibilities.

The co-directors, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, do show some interest in the ambiguity of the historical record: the film starts by providing the closest available version to the fairy tale version of her story, eliminating or downplaying all hints of violence or coercion, before doubling back to fill in the gaps. It’s not a very successful strategy though: it could only possibly have worked, it seems to me, if any viewer were sufficiently naïve or uninformed to be duped by the evasions of the first section, and even if they were, what would be the point? And in any event, placing the film as a straightforward exercise in blowing away the tinsel (such as it is) to show the grime beneath doesn’t maximize its effectiveness as a social or political touchstone. Saddled with a leadenly conventional approach in all other respects, including a massively overly reticent approach to sexual matters in the circumstances, Lovelace fills time efficiently enough, but no more.

Images of domesticity

Seyfried’s performance is fairly bland, which might have worked in a different context, but here just feels, well, bland. Linda Barnard pointed out how the supporting cast is filled with actors who’ve either been involved in their own “sordid screen sexploits” or else carry some other relevant connotation – Sharon Stone (as her mother), Chloe Sevigny, Chris Noth, James Franco. Perhaps the intention was to suggest the broad scope of Lovelace’s ongoing relevance, but it feels more like one of those self-congratulatory jaunts where the slightest part has to be filled by a recognizable name. In particular, the filming of Deep Throat – with Bobby Cannavale and Hank Azaria as the creative powers – comes across as an absolute hoot, in as convivial and nurturing an environment as one imagines the Sesame Street set to be.

The film ends in the late seventies, sketching her initial steps to remake her image, briefly summarizing her contentment as a wife and mother and her reconciliation with her parents. In a TV interview, she says she only spent a total of seventeen days in the porn business, and asks why that should define her life - a fair question, but not one the film can seriously engage with, given how it expends the bulk of its own efforts on that same period and its immediate aftermath. And it’s no surprise that it presents its images of domesticity as entirely positive, with no acknowledgment that in the big scheme of things, more women have been wronged in kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms than on the sets of porn movies. Still, maybe Epstein and Friedman’s failure to grapple more effectively with the messy trajectory of Linda Boreman/Lovelace/Traynor/Marciano constitutes the film’s most meaningful statement about her, if it means she lived something beyond the easy grasp of Hollywood simplification.

Class distinctions

At this late stage, the idea of Woody Allen is as fascinating as the actuality. Well into his 70’s, he generates a film a year like clockwork, seemingly casting anyone he wants, often pulling up shop from one country to another, while returning in between to his Manhattan refuge, where (or so the legend tells us) he’s followed the same Spartan rituals for decades. In a recent documentary, he showed the bed where he does much of his writing, and the bedside desk drawer where he stores many of his ideas on random bits of paper. It doesn’t sound like he conducts much in the way of research, or expends much mental energy on the implications of his projects, or on what traces his body of work might leave in the sands of time. Like Clint Eastwood (who, perhaps ominously, is currently on his biggest pause between projects in years) his image has softened and broadened since his box-office heyday – defined now less by sex and neurosis and intellect than by at least relatively serene pragmatism. If you think back to his iconic line about how sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as meaningless experiences go, it’s one of the best…well, you might sum up his career of the last twenty years by taking out “sex” and substituting “filmmaking.”

Blue Jasmine

His new film Blue Jasmine seems like a hybrid of people and tones from Allen’s home territory, and of other people and outlooks he’s been removed from for years. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is the widow of Hal, a convicted Bernie Madoff-type (Alec Baldwin), now penniless and fallen from her social peak after the government confiscated everything. She moves in temporarily with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in San Francisco, with some vague idea of making a new start, but she’s hopelessly adrift from any practical knowledge of how the world works, or how to make a living, and her strained mental state just gets worse. A new relationship gives her some temporary hope, but ultimately it’s as bleak a chronicle as Allen has ever generated.

The film is monumentally entertaining – one scene blends easily into another, and it’s structured around fascinating oppositions: between Jasmine’s current predicament and her lavish past, presented in intertwining flashbacks; between Jasmine and Ginger (the two, both adopted, were born to different mothers, explaining what would otherwise seem like the biggest genetic imbalance since Schwarzenegger and De Vito played twins), and Ginger’s boyfriend, and Ginger’s kids, and basically anyone else within a degree or two of separation; between external poise and charisma and escalating internal chaos. There’s already some thought that Blanchett might get another Oscar for this (Allen is extremely good at helping women win Oscars) and indeed it’s an extraordinarily powerful, high-wire performance, of the kind that you can imagine intimidating many directors and fellow collaborators; the rest of the cast (which also includes Louis C.K. and Andrew Dice Clay) is uniformly fine, but epitomize what’s meant by the notion of “supporting actors.”

Another woman

It’s actually possible the film may be a little too entertaining. In 1988, Allen made a film called Another Woman, in which Gena Rowlands played another toxic, troubled New York woman. It’s much more of a grind to watch than Blue Jasmine – so intensely calculated for psychological and thematic effect that it ends up feeling airless and stifling: compared to Blanchett, Rowlands seems to have been allowed little room for manouevre. And yet, as in his other more “serious” films of that period, you can feel Allen trying to expand, to will himself into a different kind of gravity and penetration; the film feels like he worried about it, in a way that’s hard to perceive in his work now. That’s the possible downside of what I called serene pragmatism, that once you’re done with admiring it in the abstract, it doesn’t necessarily deliver much else to take home with you.

Blue Jasmine transcends that limitation though, for an unexpected reason from Allen: its resonance on the very pressing issues of class distinction and absence of social mobility. Various critics have commented that the film’s portrayal of Ginger’s blue-collar environment isn’t particularly subtle: the men are all beer-guzzling, loud-talking, not so much fashion-challenged as comprehensively defeated, never coming within a bowling lane’s length of a complex thought, and shouting pretty much all the time. It’s not clear to what extent Allen intends all of this as a parody versus a celebration, but maybe that’s a large part of the point – he’s not inclined to pretend at this late stage in his privileged life that he can inject himself into such an unfamiliar environment, any more than Jasmine can. Likewise, reviewers have faulted Allen for his somewhat clunky portrayal of an evening computer class that Jasmine attends (it seems to involve endless abstract “studying” and little time actually just, you know, learning to use computers). But these details matter less than the accreting sense of impossibility, that there’s no way for Jasmine to cross the divide created by her life experience to date; alcoholic escape, and even madness, may be as rational a strategy as even pretending to try.

Meaningless experience?

The barrier works both ways of course. On the one occasion when Ginger and her ex-husband had some extra money, Hal talked them into investing it with him, and lost it all. We all know how the system is stacked against those at the bottom, how the gains amass with increasingly wild disproportionality at the top, and yet lawmakers seem more concerned about the self-serving whining of the privileged than about the fabric of the country; a moral atrocity for which they pay no price, given that people seem entirely incapable of voting in their own best interest. Blue Jasmine gets almost excruciating to watch when it faces this gulf head-on, for example as in a flashback of how Jasmine and Hal tied themselves in knots to avoid spending time with Ginger and the husband when they visited New York. Much as the country loves its sea to shining sea rhetoric, it’s increasingly defined by blind incomprehension, if not outright internal hatred and contempt.

Allen – and probably just about everyone else involved in the film – is much more likely to brush shoulders with a Jasmine than a Ginger. But Blue Jasmine carries an unsettling awareness of the fragility of these enclaves, and of the dubious wisdom of believing in an “America” that can somehow compensate when things break down. Its last, piercing close-up of Jasmine seems true to the intractability of these issues, and triangulates between the delectable specificity of Blanchett’s performance and the character’s miserably universal implications. And so, for some of the time at least, Allen has crafted more here than another top-flight meaningless experience.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

March movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2007)

David Fincher’s Zodiac is a completely engrossing film, reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s classic procedural epics like Prince of the City and Q&A. Stretching over more than ten years, it charts the search for the “Zodiac” killer who terrorized California for several years from 1969 onwards (and was the basis for the murderer in the first Dirty Harry movie). The complicated but admirably comprehensible structure focuses on three main protagonists – a crime reporter (Robert Downey Jr.), a cop (Mark Ruffalo) and an editorial cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal), all of whom spend years of their lives trying to put it together, all paying a personal price – surrounded by dozens of other characters, often caught in bureaucratic hell (along the way, you learn quite a lot about the limitations of intra-state law enforcement).


Fincher’s work here is fluid and assured, but quite restrained by his previous standards, with little of the taste for grandeur of Se7en or Fight Club (just enough, perhaps, so you know he’s still got it). Ultimately this limits the film’s overall achievement: it’s not important enough to excite you on the highest level. There’s that theme of obsession, and the intriguing hint that the killer’s taste for melodrama is an extension of his cinephilia (the old manhunt movie The Most Dangerous Game seems to have been a particular inspiration), but these are really just vague flavours in a film that impresses you overall more for its doggedness, organization and tenacity (it’s unusual in Hollywood terms to see a film where persistent failure and disappointment are so prominent). Among many fine (and some nicely creepy) performances, Downey stands out, as so often, for simply delivering the best line readings in the entire business; by contrast the nerdy Gyllenhaal character, who seizes on the case as an opportunity for self-actualization, always feels more like a device than an actual character (even though, ironically, he’s playing the guy who wrote the book behind the film).

Shonali Bose’s film Amu has good intentions galore, almost completely undone by near-hopeless execution. It starts with a young woman visiting her birthplace in Delhi for the first time since she was adopted at the age of 3 and taken to LA. She wanders round, exploring her heritage, gradually realizing that her birth parents didn’t die in a malaria epidemic as she’d always been told; their trail ends instead in a 1984 riot where thousands of Sikhs were killed. This event, apparently carried out with significant political complicity and subject since then to an ongoing hush campaign, is obviously a worthy subject for a film, but by the time you get through a first half that plays like a Nancy Drew in Delhi episode, your goodwill is already exhausted. Bose’s approach is relentlessly superficial, with awful dialogue and plotting and unimpressive acting, and the ultimate flashback to the riots is hampered both by an apparent low budget and more seriously by a lack of real explanation and context. I should note though that based on surfing the web it seems to have been well received in India, and it doesn’t cop out by ending on a redemptive note, so maybe aesthetic merit isn’t the primary consideration here.

The Namesake

Staying with India, Mira Nair is clearly a much more accomplished director than Shonali Bose, which makes The Namesake that much keener a disappointment. This epic of two generations moving from India to America and then to some extent back again (some physically; others spiritually) is often shockingly slack and meandering. It’s based on a highly regarded novel, and perhaps on paper the authorial voice brought some greater coherence to what soon comes to seem here like an all-but-endless succession of life changes, mostly presented in the same well-meaning but ineffectual tone (with escalating weepiness content). The basis of the title – the inspirational role of Russian author Gogol in the father’s life, embodied by his giving that name to his son – seems here like little more than an affectation, and the film becomes increasingly clogged with flashbacks, to an extent that gets to feel self-regarding. Of course it’s smooth enough, and some thematic interest is inherent in the material, but the film is certainly light on specific merit. 

The British comedy Starter For Ten could only possibly have been made because of its sole gimmick, to evoke the warhorse British TV show University Challenge, an incomprehensible geekfest that I used to watch with the same bewilderment as everyone else. James McAvoy plays a small town boy who makes it into Bristol University and then with unlikely speed onto the quiz team; he falls in love with a blonde looker while overlooking someone much more suitable; alienates his old friends and then just about everyone else; loses his way all round; goes on a shooting rampage before killing himself. Or maybe he finds redemption. You decide. The film has very few laughs but delivers the standard undemanding pleasantness, aided with lots of Cure on the soundtrack. I would like to take a vow never to use that phrase “undemanding pleasantness” or its variants ever again, but unfortunately I think I’ll be needing them.

The Aura

The Aura is the second and last film by director Fabian Bielinsky, who died last year of a heart attack. It’s the excellently plotted tale of a dissatisfied taxidermist who reluctantly accompanies a friend on a hunting trip; before the first day is over, his friend has abandoned him, and he’s accidentally shot and killed the owner of the hunting lodge. It turns out the dead man used the lodge as a cover for a criminal network, and the next job is just a few days away.  The taxidermist finds himself drawn into taking the dead man’s place, seeing a chance to prove himself at something, despite his patent inadequacy for the role.

The movie is a fine, deliberately paced thriller, but the real thrill was in how it started reminding me of Antonioni’s The Passenger, which is a high compliment. Bielinsky’s tone is more straightforward and gritty than Antonioni’s, but at times his film is as effective in melding inner and outer worlds, and The Aura is full of distinctive, perfectly placed twists and nuances. Bielinsky’s first film, the scam-laden Nine Queens, was even more intricately plotted, but the structure there was almost too rich – it was barely clear you could take any of it seriously. On the other hand, there might have been a lurking commentary there on the chaotic state of contemporary Argentina; an aspect that The Aura doesn’t get into at all. Just like Antonioni in The Passenger, Bielinsky’s next film  - if he’d continued to get better - might have reclaimed that political specificity while still tapping an existential timelessness: a gorgeous combination for any film. But now we’ll never know.

Land of crap

Paul Schrader’s new film The Canyons received an unusual amount of attention for a low-budget project by an unfashionable director, largely for casting Lindsay Lohan in one of its lead roles and thereby becoming an instantly foreseeable train wreck. She plays Tara, the girlfriend of Christian, a spoiled rich kid and dabbling movie producer with a nastily manipulative nature (evidenced in particular by immersing himself in a sex life of Tiger Woods-like complexity). Christian doesn’t know she formerly lived with Ryan, the lead in his pending low-budget horror picture, but when he gets suspicious, everything ramps up, putting careers and psyches and even lives in danger. The film really only has five significant characters (and a cameo by Gus Van Sant, almost the only person in there who seems much older than thirty-five) – for all of LA’s space and possibilities for connection (and the city looks as ugly in this movie as it ever has), it’s heavy with inertia and defeat, with the sense of being trapped in the debris of past compromises and present fears.

The Canyons

If I hadn’t seen any other reviews of the film (which you can watch on-demand as well as in theatres), I might have argued Schrader had hit on a somewhat foolproof approach, whereby the worse his movie gets, the more you can argue it embodies the end-of-everything wretchedness of its protagonists, its form thus appropriately mirroring its depressing content. But since the picture received very few positive reviews, maybe I’d be the only fool to be hooked by that foolproof line of thinking. I’m still not sure I’m wrong though. In The Star, Linda Bernard commented “it’s hard to believe (Schrader) is the same person who directed American Gigolo and wrote Taxi Driver.” Well, that’s a fair statement – American Gigolo remains a monstrously compelling, strutting, polished-to-a-shine tale of life on the moral margins, so crazily confident that Schrader brings it to a close by lifting from the austere French master Robert Bresson, and makes the absurdity seem organic. His next film, Cat People, one of my all-time guilty pleasures, deployed a similar aesthetic approach to scintillating intense and perverse ends. But he’s made over ten films between then and now, few of which would have readily jumped out as coming from that “same person,” except to the most refined of cinematic detectives.

His work, for sure, exhibits a recurring interest in obsession and fixation and voyeurism, and in following these to often violent ends. Schrader has summed it up this way: “What fascinates me are people who want to be one thing but who behave in a way contradictory to that. Who might say, ‘I want to be happy, but I keep doing things that make me unhappy’” (it sometimes feels like Schrader’s often fraught career, studded with disappointments and conflicts and firings, is an extended application of that principle). But these preoccupations have allowed him an impressive range of tonal variety, from the wintery Affliction to the dreamy Forever Mine to the drolly efficient Auto Focus. The Canyons, if nothing else, adds to this toolbox: its dead-eyed digital images bleakly replicating the shallow waters of its characters. Which of course is another assessment that almost simultaneously sounds like an indictment.

When we were great

The broader point, I think, is that it’s hard to believe America is the same country that could have spawned a movie like American Gigolo. Schrader starts and ends and punctuates his film with images of now derelict movie theatres: they clearly make the point about the death of cinema, almost too clearly (in a Globe and Mail interview, he commented: “We’re in a post-empire arts culture…we’re making movies out of crap that’s left lying around from when we were great.”) More piercing is a moment when Lohan’s character asks another, a woman straining to make her way in the movie business, if she even likes movies; the other says of course she does, but can’t flesh out her answer beyond that. Later on, talking to his psychiatrist, Christian talks of how a particular situation made him feel like an actor, a state which seems to evoke significant disquiet and self-disgust, and leads him to a complete behavioural breakdown after he leaves there. It’s not just that the movies are dead, it’s that what remains of the term, and the infrastructure surrounding them, is actively malignant.

Thus the casting of the lead roles. James Deen, who plays Christian, is usually a porn star, thereby embodying the branch of cinema with the most tenuous claim to art, or meaningful free expression, or anything else beyond the strictly utilitarian. His performance isn’’t particularly interesting, but that seems to be the point: for all his affectations and calculations, the character’s a dead end, a vacuous non-entity whose prominence in his little world is proof of its hopelessness.

Lindsay Lohan

Lohan, the film’s most discussed aspect, is an inherently more resonant presence, and Schrader takes an old-style approach toward her, casting her without too much regard for plausibility (she doesn’t seem to be in good enough shape, in any sense, to constitute such an object of desire) and allowing our knowledge of her real-life travails (which I assume, like me, you seem to have acquired by osmosis even if you’ve never spent a moment of your time searching for it) to seep onto the screen, cloaking her in brittle, soiled poignancy (Tara’s ambition, even in her mid-twenties, seems to have been completely extinguished, with nothing left except a desire to be taken care of). Just as with some of her predecessors in this regard (Schrader has evoked Marilyn Monroe,  although that’s understandably not convincing to everyone), the question of whether she’s giving a good performance by normal measures barely seems relevant.

The film toys with the promise of a melodramatic ending, but then avoids it, suggesting the characters will achieve nothing better than variations on the same living oblivion, until their time or luck runs out. No doubt there are worthier case histories in LA, and around the film business, than this, but the film seems to suggest we’re fooling ourselves if we even spend the time to look for them. Writing here a few weeks ago about Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, set in similar circies, I said she seems to regard her subjects “as beyond defense or criticism, as embodiments of a complete moral absence.” I might apply the last part of that to Schrader too, but forget about being beyond criticism; you can feel his moral outrage itching, to the point where it wouldn’t have been so surprising if the movie had morphed into the sometimes-rumoured Taxi Driver 2, with Travis Bickle returning to wash all this sin away. The fact it doesn’t happen, that it’s all just frozen in place, might be Schrader’s greatest expression of pessimism, of how he’s stuck doing something that, to say the least, doesn’t make him completely happy.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Summer movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2009)

Theoretically, Sam Mendes’ Away We Go is the kind of project I like, seeming to be trying to diagnose life as we have to live it here and now. It’s about a couple in their early thirties, in love and expecting their first child, but afraid something fundamental has passed them by – how to be adults, with the roots and infrastructure and emotional contours that seems to mean. In the new online economy they can work from anywhere, so they set out on a trip to find a base, visiting friends and family members in Arizona and Wisconsin and Montreal and Miami, hoping somewhere might stick. It’s patriotically pleasing to note that Montreal will come out a clear winner in the eyes of most viewers, if not necessarily those of the protagonists.

Away We Go

Mind you, that’s partly because most of the people they meet elsewhere are somewhere between deranged and grotesque, whereas the couple in Montreal are merely sadder than they first appear. This extremely episodic film, co-written by the high-profile Dave Eggers, has some easy laughs, but it’s bewildering what we’re meant to take away from it. The day afterwards, I rewatched Preston Sturges’ 1942 comedy The Palm Beach Story, a remarkably sustained wife-on-the-run creation, populated with one of the all-time great assemblies of severe eccentrics. Sturges’ film remains a milestone, partly because it seems like a coherent (if super-heightened) angle on aggression and sexuality. As usual, I know it’s hardly fair to judge new releases by hall-of-fame standards (although then again Mendes is, let’s recall, an acclaimed Oscar-winning director), but the comparison helps coalesce how Away We Go never amounts to much more than a freak show. The ultimate proof comes with the ending, which seems arbitrary at best, and won’t strike most viewers as being particularly plausible, or relevant, or meaningful.

Maya Rudolph, best known for her broad sketch-work on Saturday Night Live, is more interesting in the female lead than I expected, but John Krasinski as her partner sticks to a single wide-eyed note. The other actors lay down a few crumbs at best. I wrote earlier this year that Mendes’ last film, Revolutionary Road, seemed removed and academic and, in terms of evoking its 1950’s setting, oddly empty. Much the same applies here; Mendes just doesn’t seem like much of a cinematic thinker, when you come right down to it. There’s no reason to see this film - find something vaguely adult to do instead.


Which raises the question, does Pete Docter’s Up, the latest Pixar wonder, qualify as such a worthwhile adult pursuit? The critics are lining up, as they did with Wall-E last year, to stamp it as one of the year’s best. I do think, with some regret, that digital animation is now almost the surest source of the sort of out of the box daring that used to belong to the major auteurs. You marvel throughout at its immense self-confidence, and the availability of its resources.

As you likely know, it’s built around an old widower, missing his wife and regretting they never achieved their great dream of moving to the epic Paradise Falls in South America; when he’s faced with being shunted into a rest home, he uses his knowledge of (and obviously access to!) balloons to lift his house from its foundations and soar away from it all. Along with a stowaway (and presumably the cooperation of an inattentive US air force, and a week off for the laws of physics) he makes it down south in no time, to an adventure involving a long-lost explorer, a rare giant bird, and a large pack of talking dogs. This last element generates many of the best laughs, while underlining the film’s rather audacious navigating between high and low concepts.

It’s great to watch, and I’d rather this be the year’s official best film than say Slumdog Millionaire (the success of which rather depressed me), but I wouldn’t be able to maintain my enthusiasm for the artform if I really believed it was that. I admire Up in the same way that I admire the iphone – it’s a triumph of human creativity, but surely more technological than aesthetic…or rather, in both cases, the technological achievement becomes polished to an extent that art as we traditionally think of it starts to look trivial. But in my own dire view of things, this is one of the more benign aspects of the overall degradation that’s made us into the debt-ridden, unsustainable, complacent collective monstrosity we are; the more we advance on some fronts, the less aware we are of what’s eroding on others.

Up is a nice take on how it’s never too late to change and all that kind of thing, but for all its sophistication, it remains a kids’ film, in that kids needn’t take on any responsibility for grappling with the world’s real issues. Adults ought to though.


Another depressing thing about last year’s Oscars, to some, was the surprise foreign film victory of Japan’s Departures, beating The Class and Waltz with Bashir. At the time, hardly anyone outside the tiny pool of Oscar voters had seen, or barely even registered, the movie, but now it’s been released, and generally slammed as mediocre. It’s not an unfair judgment, since the film’s instincts and approaches are utterly conventional. It’s the story of a cellist who loses his Tokyo orchestra gig and retreats back to his childhood town, where he takes a job preparing the dead for burial. In its classic form, this is a highly ritualistic, and again aesthetic pursuit, seeking to capture the person’s inner truth and beauty while rendering them immaculate.

The story is a mere dawdle, shamelessly embracing various clichés and soft choices. But I have to tell you, I was in tears for a good half hour of it. A huge chunk of the film simply involves the protagonist and his aging master practicing their art, as the bereaved family looks on, and it’s classic identification mechanics – as they become wrapped up in the ceremony and get weepy, so do you. And compared to the somewhat meaningless high-concepts I mentioned, there’s something refreshing about the film’s clarity and focus: the devotion to the dead in their final passage isn’t primarily a matter of mysticism or superstition, but a sharpening of the obligations of being left behind. The character is portrayed initially as such a goofball that his inner evolution doesn’t carry the weight it should, but through sheer doggedness maybe, the movie hits its targets. I wish it were better, but it’s still the most mature and meaningful thing I have for you this week.

Sick on fumes

Maybe my best shot at writing an entertaining review of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives would simply be to string together selected extracts from other writers. Taking the top prize, Jeffrey Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere says the film: “is world-class in its repulsiveness, and it goes way beyond being a time-waster. The fumes from this oppressively violent Asian macho (BS) sword-slicing fantasy will sink into your system and your soul and leave you off-kilter — tainted in ways that may be hard to pinpoint at first but are no less real — for weeks after seeing it. Or months. Or eternally.”  Rex Reed judges it “may not be the worst movie ever made, but it is unquestionably in the top five” (you have to love that “unquestionably”). Liam Lacey of The Globe and Mail says “it’s a movie to be endured as it revels in stupidity and then, predictably, seems depressed about it.” Stephanie Zacharek in the Village Voice thinks the film “bobs along on a bloody current of silliness,” and that.” Refn may be taking himself too seriously or not taking anything seriously enough-- it's hard to tell.” There’s plenty more where all that came from.

Only God Forgives

What most of these dismissals have in common though is a sense of ambivalence – that if the director is being a jerk, it’s not in the disposable, roll-your-eyes-and-move-on manner of other action movie jerks. If Wells were really telling the truth (even allowing for poetic license) that something about the film will taint your sensibility for a prolonged period afterwards, well, that would be an achievement of sorts, wouldn’t it? I experienced some variation on this myself: for the first half or so of the movie, I was mentally writing my own scathing review of it; then over the second half the review got steadily better; then in thinking about it and making some notes afterwards, it got significantly better.

The film stars Ryan Gosling as Julian, an American living in Thailand, where he and his brother Billy are both involved in shady kick-boxing rings (or something like that) and other morally grimy activity. Billy loses it cataclysmically, and murders a young whore; he’s murdered in vengeance, and when their mother Crystal arrives to collect the body, she insists that Julian in turn knock off his killers. The film is quite short – only an hour and a half – and contains little dialogue; as you’ve probably gleaned, it could be perceived as little more than a series of killings and maimings, linked only by the thinnest of connective material.

Moral clarity

Actually, that absence is key to the film’s odd, troubling affect; Refn leaves out almost all the plotting and interaction and “colour” that would normally attend even a basic exploitation narrative, structuring his film as a series of formal encounters, framed and paced to emphasize their disconnection from conventional concepts of morality or motivation (this applies as much to the few scenes of relatively extended conversation as to the killing and maiming). There’s no attempt to explain how people locate each other, or get from A to B – there’s nothing more to them, in effect, than their structural imperatives. Refn often accentuates this by playing with the editing in a way that confuses our sense of who is where; at times it feels like the movie might be taking place less on earth than in one of those inexplicable zones that wind through the narrative of David Lynch movies.

What’s most striking about this approach is how it serves to accentuate the profound lack of moral clarity, at least compared against our usual reference points. Early on, the brother tries to buy another man’s daughter, sight unseen; the other turns him down, but what’s chilling is the matter-of-fact way he does it, as if such a transgressive offer is just the usual course of business. And indeed it is, on both sides: Julian and Crystal’s relationship in particular is heavy with incestuous undertones, boundary crossings and unresolved past traumas. There’s still a sense of right and wrong – Julian crosses his mother by drawing some lines he won’t cross, and a couple of the film’s most piercing moments simply involve children in peril, staring into the face of danger, suggesting not necessarily purity, but at least a distance from the wretched morass created by adults. But for the most part, the film bears out the implication of its title: in the absence of God’s intervention, people keep going in cycles of action and counter-action, applying their own concepts of relative mercy or righteousness or proportionality, creating potentially endless chains of consequence, without reference to any external notions of law or equilibrium.

It’s weirdly appropriate then that the film’s last scene is an extended scene of one of its main perpetrators singing karaoke to a respectful audience; a further contribution to keeping us off balance, while extending the sense of disembodied performance, of artifice disconnected from substance. So stepping back from all of this, I end up finding the film quite aesthetically coherent, in a way that constitutes something of an advance on Refn’s last film Drive (which operated more like a splashy art installation). But is that the same as saying it’s actually good? Even if you accept everything I’ve just said – and obviously, many would laugh (or retch) at me as loudly as they did at the movie – what does that amount to, in the relative scheme of things? Well, at least a bit more than you might think.

He had his reasons

Too many movies explore glamorously distorted, grotesque visions of darkness, and Refn’s artistic candour is somewhat refreshing. In an interview with the UK Observer, he said he "got a lot more conservative about violent entertainment since having children," but when pressed on the point went on: “It's like pornography. I'm a pornographer. I make films about what arouses me. What I want to see. Very rarely to understand why I want to see it and I've learned not to become obsessed with that part of it.” Which sums up the moral abdication I described. It’s expressed in the film too: when she’s told what her dead son did to the young girl, Crystal’s only response is: “He must have had his reasons.” It’s a chilling rejection of any responsibility toward anything other than the intuitive demands of one’s own blood, but only somewhat overstated as an expression of the tribalism that drives politics, or patriotism, or ridiculous social values, and allows rationalizing any kinds of wrongs in the name of those virtues (George Zimmerman had his reasons regarding Trayvon Martin, or so the verdict tells us). I’m sure Refn would disclaim any intended parallel in this regard – but that’s why Only God Forgives is so strangely powerful: it’s not what it says or expresses, it’s what it embodies.