Saturday, November 30, 2013

Fall movies, part one

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2006)

Here’s some of the stuff I saw, and didn’t write about, during that run of film festival articles. My favourite was Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, an extremely personal film about a young Mexican man living in Paris, who habitually confuses the boundaries between dream and reality. It’s an utter delight - the kind of film that’s so packed with invention and non-linear creativity that you wonder how any human mind ever arrived at it. But it never feels like a mere jaunt, partly because the complex romantic relationship at its centre (beautifully incarnated by Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg) is so scintillatingly conceived. Gondry’s last film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind had greater scope perhaps, but this is the one where he really got to me.

Movie Magicians

The Illusionist is a further distressing sign for Edward Norton’s career – a minor tale of a turn of the century magician who must outsmart nobility and the police to win the woman he loves. With thin period flavour, and a main cast drenched in contemporary resonance, the film has some beguiling scenes but ultimately only limited tricks up its sleeve. Christopher Nolan’s glossy The Prestige has two turn of the century magicians, and a lot more going on besides: Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale feuding onstage and off, David Bowie playing Nikola Tesla, Scarlett Johansson strutting around in skimpy outfits, and a narrative that never lets five minutes go by without pulling a new rabbit out of its hat. I wish it amounted to more, but I did admire the sleight of hand.

Brad Freundlich’s Trust the Man inspired a reverie in me, about how the film might have been one of those countless middlebrow sex comedies from the mid-70’s, directed by someone like Herbert Ross, perhaps starring George Segal, Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon and Tuesday Weld. It would have seemed mildly daring at the time, but not enough that anyone would remember it now. Just like Trust the Man itself has already been justly forgotten. Conversations with Other Women, directed by Hans Canosa, sticks closely to Aaron Eckhart and Helena Bonham-Carter as former lovers who meet again at a wedding. The film’s gimmick is its use of a split screen throughout, one side mostly focusing on him and the other on her, but Canosa should have been far more precise in deploying this technique, if the intention was to yield any insight into conflicting perspectives.

Idlewild is a strange concoction, with Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton of Outcast in a 20’s gangster creation – sometimes it’s giddily surreal and anachronistic, and at other times ploddingly straight-faced. The best parts, inevitably, are the musical numbers, and the movie makes dazzling use of the digital mixing board, but it’s just not coherent enough to inspire real enthusiasm. Even stranger is Shadowboxer, the story of how a troubled hitman puts his life in order (sort of). The movie is perverse, sadistic, messy and often silly, but it does have some ideas you’d never thought of before (like the sexual pairing of Cuba Gooding Jr and Helen Mirren, that kind of thing) and it does make sense in a shameless kind of way. The only film more disparaged than Shadowboxer in the last few months may have been Neil LaBute’s remake of The Wicker Man. The horror-thriller is hardly the cerebral LaBute’s natural territory, and the film feels as if he talked himself into too many compromises; still, at its heart it’s an intriguingly weird extension of his persistent interest in the fraught relationship between the sexes.


Terry Gilliam’s Tideland (another contender in the high disparagement stakes) finally opened after playing at the 2005 film festival – I went on Monday evening, and shared the theatre with one other man (so much for Gilliam’s “cult” status). 11-year-old Jodelle Ferland occupies virtually every scene as a girl led by rampantly bad parenting into a grotesque fantasy existence, and then she comes to live on the plains, where the surrounding reality is nuttier than what’s in her head. The movie is extravagantly off-putting, and knowingly punishing on the audience; the rejection of normal behavioural and narrative norms is so extravagant that it strikes me as immensely brave. It’s certainly the least sentimental film about childhood that I can think of at this moment.

The Brazilian House of Sand is about three generations of women forced by circumstance into a remote life among endless sand dunes, all but lost to civilization. Pictorially it can’t miss, and it’s never less than intriguing, but it doesn’t yield much thematic depth overall. Half Nelson, about the relationship between a drug-addicted teacher and one of his pupils, is less compelling than reviews suggested, but still has many virtues, such as Ryan Gosling’s resourceful performance, and the intriguing attempt to portray his malaise as a response to thwarted liberal idealism.

Hollywoodland, about an investigation into the apparent suicide of 50’s Superman actor George Reeves, is interesting enough scene by scene, but adds absolutely nothing to the unnecessarily large canon of Hollywood movies about Hollywood. Better this though than Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, another Hollywood murder mystery, in which various De Palma “touches” can’t come close to rescuing an inert whole. Barry Levinson’s Man of the Year, a mild comedy about a Jon Stewart-type who runs for President and unexpectedly wins, makes the same mistake as All the King’s Men – not enough time on the intriguing central concept, and too much on stupid subplots (in this case a stunningly implausible concoction about voting machine gremlins); I liked it more than most critics though, if only out of sympathy for its underlying despair about the state of the system.

Dead on Arrival

The controversial Death if a President was Dead on Arrival. The evocation of a Bush assassination, (in October 2007 Chicago – want to bet Bush gives Illinois a wide berth all through next fall?)  is effective enough, but having come up with this audacious premise, the film illustrates strangely limited ambition, only sketchily setting out successor President Cheney’s follow-up agenda, and concentrating instead on the rush to justice in finding a politically palatable assassin. It’s remarkable how boring it all gets, and as many of the fake talking heads are allowed to over-emote, its grip steadily weakens. The biggest irony, after all the unseen condemnation, is that the movie contains far more praise than criticism of Bush, taking on hilariously excessive dimensions in Cheney’s eulogy (actually lifted from the one he gave Ronald Reagan).

For a certain crowd, Stephen Frears’ The Queen must be the season’s crowd pleaser, as Elizabeth and newly-elected PM Tony Blair play out a very delicate battle of wills in the days after Princess Diana’s death. The film is really just a well-mounted curiosity with nothing very profound to say, but it’s very cannily put together, avoiding possible pitfalls in all directions, and benefiting in particular of course from Helen Mirren’s likely Oscar winning performance. Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, bedecked in bright colours and conspicuous consumption, always feels vaguely silly and flighty, and yet it’s not ineffective in conveying a notionally powerful woman trapped by custom and ideology, displacing her frustration into building herself the prettiest of cages.

More to come!

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