Saturday, November 9, 2013

Fall movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2005)

First actually, some late summer movies I didn’t already write about. Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm was indeed an oddly grim enterprise, cluttered looking and claustrophobic, carrying a rather fussy and obsessive air. This turned off many critics, but I rather liked the sense of Gilliam’s tetchiness and skepticism interacting with potentially merely fanciful material. John Singleton’s Four Brothers is a mixture of gritty blue-collar local colour crossed with ingratiating violent excess. After this and Shaft, Singleton’s status as a black pioneer (the first to win an Oscar nomination for directing, for Boyz ‘N the Hood) seems well and truly dissipated, although the film is undoubtedly entertaining in its swaggering way. The Constant Gardener, one of the year’s most highly praised films, had dazzling technique, but seemed to me awfully reliant on contrivance, and its sensual pleasures probably served to blunt its political impact. And I finally saw The Wedding Crashers toward the end of its run. It starts off great, with a near-inspired sex-and-revelry montage, but becomes increasingly plodding, ending up barely sentient.

I also went back to see Wong Kar-wai’s 2046, the only film this year that I thought demanded an almost immediate second visit. I wrote a few months ago that it “rapidly exhausts your powers of absorption on first viewing.” The revisit rendered the film’s structural intricacies considerably less daunting, allowing its human delicacy, particularly as enacted by the several fine leading actresses, to come to the fore.

Lord of War is a fascinating chronicle of a big-time arts dealer – one of those Hollywood movies that thrills you with its overall prowess, and its ability to grapple so confidently with complex subject matter, even as you regret its conventionality in a host of ways; it certainly doesn’t soften the edges of Nicolas Cage’s amoral protagonist as much as you might have feared. Pretty Persuasion, about nasty goings-on in a California high school, has all kinds of appealingly sleazy ideas, but persistently weak execution. Given its shameless adherence to formula, Lasse Hallstrom’s An Unfinished Life entertained me much more than should have been possible. I generally find Hallstrom’s films dreary and shallow, but Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman, making even the lamest line sound like mulled wine, held me captive. Flightplan looked from the trailer like a hi-tech, super-mystifying version of Hitchcock’s Lady Vanishes, but didn’t turn out that way; it engaged in some conventional if generally effective yarn-spinning before taking off into overkill, with only Jodie Foster’s anxious centre to keep it visible from the earth.

Some more film festival movies I caught up with later.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s Canada’s nominee for this year’s foreign film Oscar, and hopes are building up that it can replicate The Barbarian Invasions’ recent success there. It certainly has a shot, but given what we know of the Oscars, is this necessarily a sign of highest-level achievement? Vallee’s film, the chronicle of a boy growing up from the early 60’s to the mid-80’s, is packed with colour and incident; it’s imaginative and well sustained, with a great sense of time and place, and an admirable taste for sexual ambiguity. But the strenuousness evident in the title (which consists of the initials of the boy and his five brothers) also winds through the film, most egregiously in a dubious Jesus parallel (the boy is born on Christmas day, seems to have healing powers, etc.) but also in the somewhat neurotic pacing. Still, it’s certainly a superior example of the wacky family nostalgia genre.

Shane Black was the hot scriptwriter of Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodbye; apparently tired of such hackwork, he disappeared for a long while and is now back as the writer-director of Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which melds his tired old action territory with something more quirky and (in a cozy Hollywood kind of way) experimental. Robert Downey Jr (highly resourceful and magnetic as always) is a petty criminal who comes to Hollywood for a screen test and gets drawn into a complex murder plot. The dialogue is flashy and glib (for instance, the characters frequently correct one another’s grammar) and Downey’s voice over continuously acknowledges the artifice of what we’re watching – a device that’s pleasantly diverting and occasionally even stimulating at times, but only emphasizes the dispensability of the core plot. It all has a distinct air of smart-ass-ism, and I doubt that Black is headed anywhere that Tarantino hasn’t been already, but that’s still more satisfying than where he used to be.

Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale is a marked contrast with his earlier, conventionally quirky movies, and comes as a surprise after his humdrum writing work with Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic) and his thin humour pieces for The New Yorker. This seems to reflect the new film’s autobiographical roots – the set-up of two New York writers whose marriage is breaking up, and the two boys caught in the middle, apparently parallels Baumbach’s own teenage experience. The film has lots of funny lines, but also sustains a uniquely dour, rather squirmy quality, shot through with denial and displacement and self-loathing – the ending provides only the most minimal degree of closure. It’s a most distinctive and subtly weighty work, but with the feeling of a one-off, although I hope I’m wrong. 

Shopgirl is the adaptation of Steve Martin’s novella, written by and starring Martin and directed by Anand Tucker. Claire Danes plays the Saks Fifth Avenue worker caught between Martin’s computer millionaire and a grungy unsophisticate played by Jason Schwartzmann; she’s the best she’s ever been, and is virtually solely responsible for whatever nuance the film seems to have. Otherwise it’s wistful to the point of invisibility, carrying an unmerited notion of itself as a universal fable. Martin’s humour is largely absent, to be replaced by, well, nothing really.

Capote recreates Truman Capote’s writing of In Cold Blood, his famous “non-fiction novel” about a brutal Kansas murder in 1960; the writing stretched over years, and the end result transformed the writer’s reputation, but left him so drained that he never completed another full-length work. Philip Seymour Hoffman is excellent as Capote, and the film is extremely subtle in depicting both his initial confident manipulation of his own image, and the degree to which this biter is ultimately bitten by the weight of the project and of his own complicity in the fate of the two accused men. I admired the film a lot, but I must admit to not finding it particularly engrossing at times – its economy and restraint engender a slight feeling of monotony, and I’m not sure that someone who lacked a basic preexisting sense of Capote would know at all what to make of it.

Much more next time


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