Sunday, December 22, 2013

Fall movies #5

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2006)

Most critics regarded Harsh Times, by David Ayer (who wrote Training Day) as a minor entry in the urban drugs and violence genre, but I was really surprised how much I admired it. Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez drive endlessly around scuzzy LA, supposedly looking for jobs to mollify their partners, but more preoccupied with getting high, making money however it comes, and just creating mayhem. It’s a long and somewhat monotonous film, but gradually reveals itself as a piercing, scathing study of two woefully inadequate men whose irresponsibility might trip into frightening violence. That Bale’s character is a troubled veteran going for a job with the Department of Homeland Security gives it an effective broader undertone. In many ways Harsh Times is contrived and fanciful, but it’s a rare film that can communicate any fresh perspective on macho turmoil, and Bale gives one of the year’s most mesmerizing performances.

Fast Food Nation

Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation is an interesting narrative derived from Eric Schlosser’s devastating expose of the want-fries-with-that industry. I was never a big fast food guy in the first place, but I have to report that Schlosser’s book polished off whatever minor presence I ever had in the customer base. The film may not be quite as effective, despite a final sequence that brings home the visceral nastiness of what underlies it all, for the tone here is mostly benumbed, as if crushed by the industry’s immense scale and the impossibility of more than token gestures against it.

There are three main plot strands. One follows a head office marketing executive (Greg Kinnear) investigating allegations of contaminated meat from a supply plant; the second depicts illegal immigrants who keep the factory wheels turning while being psychologically and financially exploited; and the third shows a lower middle class family whose wellbeing is likely permanently intertwined with the industry, indirectly if not directly, whether they like it or not. At times the construction seems untidy and unsubtle, and you feel that the wildly talented Linklater is being unnecessarily self-effacing; I also wished he could have pushed the canvas a little wider (the political dimension, for example, is mostly absent). But you might find yourself thinking afterwards that the despairing, almost eerie undertone is rather brave.

A Guide to Recognizing your Saints was written and directed by Dito Montiel, based on his own memories of growing up in New York in the 1980’s. The fact that Chazz Palminteri plays his father may tell you all you need to know about the film’s frequently familiar tone, although it is effective at conveying a sense of turbulence and regret.

Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy is a small but highly effective study of two old friends, now mostly grown apart, on an overnight camping trip. One of the men has greater aspirations for the friendship than the other, and although the film is spare and minimal, virtually every shot or line of dialogue is meaningful, creating a moving portrait of the conflicting burdens of moving ahead, and of being left behind.

The History Boys

The History Boys is a lightning fast filming of the hit play that won this year’s Tony for best play and actor (Richard Griffiths) after initially knocking them dead in London. It’s set in early 80’s Northern England, where a group of teachers tutor eight star pupils shooting for places in Oxford or Cambridge. The movie is deliberately drab looking, but the language and the ideas are so consistently eloquent and provocative that you feel an enormous sense of transcendence. It’s often anachronistic and idealistic (a few critics have questioned whether the boys would be singing Rogers and Hart songs rather than tuning into the Human League or New Order, and their combination of rough-edged laddishness and wildly well-read eloquence strains even theatrical license) but I saw it mostly as a happy pragmatic fantasy, in which the malleable view of history and learning ultimately extends into a highly fluid view of sexuality as well. Crammed with aphorisms and metaphors, filtered through just about perfect performances, it’s a valuable record of what must have been an even more striking experience on stage.

Emilio Estevez’s Bobby follows a bunch of characters milling round a California hotel on the night Robert F Kennedy got shot in 1968. The film was disparaged in some quarters as a cousin to Fantasy Island or The Love Boat, with mostly fading stars (Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, Anthony Hopkins and many more) acting out conventional personal dramas: affairs, weddings, fears of mortality, alcoholism – it’s all here, competently written and performed competently but never coming close to anything distinctive or revealing. The point seems to be something about brotherhood and the importance of moving past violence. Estevez’ ambition far exceeds his achievement, but at least it’s smooth and watchable (and of course achingly sincere) – better than The Love Boat, but worse than a whole lot else on TV.


Pedro Almodovar’s Volver continues his evolution into a benevolent, almost cuddly mainstream auteur the like of which hardly exists any more. This celebration of female adaptability stars Penelope Cruz in Sophia Loren-like mode as a struggling, earthy Madrid housewife who’s hit by everything at once: old secrets coming back to life, family crises galore, all framed by a loose network of women doing what it takes to get by. It’s all dressed up like a chocolate box, but as always with Almodovar, the material is remarkably raw at times – how many directors could throw in a revelation of incest with such limited histrionics? The film is a joyous, superbly controlled melting pot – spirituality and sexuality, austerity and full bloom, the murky past jostling against the vivid present. Men hardly figure in the film’s scheme, except as dispensable bastards – a contrivance that contributes to my overall feeling that this ranks below highpoints like Talk to Me.  Still great stuff though.

Recently I’ve been finding myself at the Bloor Cinema more often in years, reflecting an excellent series of Toronto premieres  - Mutual Appreciation, Old Joy, and then Bent Hamer’s Factotum. Factotum is certainly the least of those three, but it’s a highly engaging viewing experience. It’s based on a novel by Charles Bukowski, depicting a fictionalized version of himself drifting between jobs and women and from drink to drink, all of which somehow powers his writing jones. Matt Dillon channels the young Jack Nicholson in the lead role – laid back often to the point of catatonia, impudent, sometimes brutally violent and self-righteous. It’s a very entertaining stylized creation, and the film pretty much takes his lead. But compared to Marco Ferreri’s Bukowski adaptation Tales of Ordinary Madness, which I watched again recently, Factotum doesn’t feel sufficiently cohesive. It’s always a mystery how the guy holds it together; we don’t glean much sense of what it is he’s writing; and the film feels sparse, almost abstract, lacking any real low-life flavour. But it’s also full of striking, often funny moments.

Dern on top

In his Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson called Bruce Dern “one of the most striking actors on the screen, but a professional haunted by failures, and a man whose own unease flowed into his querulous screen persona.” He added that Dern “can be fearsome, loathsome, or pitiful, but he is neither calm nor commanding.”  In the fearless kitchen of 1970’s cinema, these perhaps unpromising qualities nevertheless brought Dern to the head table on plenty of occasions, with lead or strong supporting roles in such memorable films as Silent Running, The King of Marvin Gardens, Hitchcock’s last work Family Plot, and Coming Home (for which he got his only Oscar nomination to date). His emblematic role may be as the cop in Walter Hill’s The Driver, in which he seems to have the time of his life with outrageous dialogue, grandiosely asserting his own status as a winner, in comparison to the fools and losers around him. The performance perfectly embodies Thomson’s thesis: it’s a study in scarily self-righteous neediness, pushed too far not to detect some queasy self-diagnosis on the actor’s part. 


Despite the fine quality of those movies and others, they’re clearly not on the decade’s very highest echelon, and Dern has spoken of his regret at never getting the big break he hankered for. As many of his peers marched on to richer if not necessarily artistically superior times in the 80’s and 90’s, he ran quickly out of steam, and has been in supporting parts for the best part of thirty years, seldom in very memorable films. That would have seemed to be the end of the biography to all intents and purposes, if not for Alexander Payne, who cast the actor in his new film Nebraska (although Payne’s first thought was apparently of Gene Hackman, who declined to come out of retirement). Dern won the best actor award at Cannes, and some of the recent year-end critics’ prizes as well, so another Oscar nomination seems fairly likely. Some have suggested that the role might be regarded as either a lead or a supporting role, and that Dern should angle to be placed in the latter category, on the theory that it’s an easier road to the award, but the actor refused, on the basis that this would mark him as “a whore” (still not calm, but finally commanding).

It’s hard to imagine anyway why the Academy would go for such a ploy, because he’s in the great majority of the scenes in the film, and is plainly its dominant personality. He plays Woody, in his late 70’s and no longer in great physical or mental shape, taking at face value a dumb promotional flyer telling him he’s won a million dollars, and obsessed with covering the thousand mile distance from Montana to Nebraska to collect the supposed prize. His son David (Will Forte) eventually gives in and agrees to drive him; after the old man injures himself along the way, they take a detour to his home town, where most of his surviving relatives still live. Woody’s supposed millionaire status makes him a local celebrity, while also arousing the self-interest of family and so-called friends; it sounds like he’s been a lifelong easy target for such manipulations.

American journey

Payne shot the film in pristine black and white, punctuating it with visual postcards from the journey. There’s not that much to see – highways, signs, old storefronts: depending on your affection for American heartland myths, you might view the landscape as either sparsely beautiful or else as rather wretched (a point made on a brief detour to Mount Rushmore, where Woody can only focus on the imperfections). Something similar goes for the people who populate the film, their lives defined almost entirely by what and who they happened to find in their place of birth, which isn’t much – time and again, it sounds like entire existences can be summed up in alcohol, sex and cars; no one in the film comes close to expressing an abstract idea. There’s also little sign of real romance or passion; an early scene with David’s maybe-girlfriend confirms this absence persists across the generations. It’s been suggested in the past that Payne ‘s precise observation of such types isn’t that different from patronizing them, and the same might certainly be said here, but perhaps this kind of ambiguity is by now the truest response to the contours of the so-called heartland.

The film’s careful observation of these people and places yields lots of striking moments, but it always feels like at least one part fairy tale, and this is the part that ultimately triumphs; it’s disappointing how the ending seems to throw away the economic plausibility Payne’s been so scrupulous about up to that point (in this environment, a million dollars still means a lot). He’s generally regarded now as a leading American director, but I don’t really see it. His best film still seems to me, by a mile, to be the scintillating Election, a construction of graceful metaphorical and allusive complexity. His last film, The Descendants, certainly transcended normal dull craftsmanship, but it was hard to see what so many people were swooning about. In a way, it’s easier to warm to Nebraska, if only because it’s apparently conceived as a lesser project, and so it’s easier to take it as such.

Hollywood story

A lot of it’s in the casting. Forte is a quite inspired choice; the worry in his eyes is in itself worth a barrel of nuance. June Squibb, the little-known actress who plays Woody’s long-suffering wife, must be a strong award contender herself, given the eternal appeal of old women acting tough and talking dirty. Payne fills many of the small roles with people who certainly feel unappealingly un-actorly; at other times, though, you feel he might be daring us not merely to dismiss certain characters as lazy trash who you just want to turn your back on (if so, I failed the test).

Anyway, for me it was always going to be much more about Bruce Dern than anything else. He’s just about perfect in the role, but unfortunately it’s not the same as saying it’s the perfect Bruce Dern role. When people describe the younger Woody, it’s impossible to see how that correlates with what we know of the younger Dern, and by the same token, you can’t help wishing his career-capping performance was defined by great talk and action rather than by stiffness and confusion. It’ll still be a great Hollywood story if he wins the Oscar (although as a practical matter, I have no idea how a voter should choose between the relative strengths of Dern and of kick-ass contenders such as Robert Redford and Chiwetel Ejiofor) but it would be more like him winning a late-career promotional sweepstakes than reaping the logical rewards of his earlier great work.

Fall movies #4

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2006)

A Good Year stars Russell Crowe as a ruthless London bond trader who inherits the French chateau where he spent childhood summers with his beloved uncle, travels back there to sell it, and then slowly rediscovers his love for a simpler way of life; beautiful Marion Cotillard helps give his self-awareness a push. Brief clips of M. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle, and a yapping dog called Tati, suggest that director Ridley Scott (in a major change of pace from making movies with budgets bigger than most countries’ economies) has grand comic ambitions here, but his film could hardly fall further short of the great Tati. His fussy style crushes all potential laughs, and is ineffective both at showcasing the local scenery and at evoking its attendant spiritual benefits; add in the often annoying, prissy scripting, and a dull, unattractive Crowe performance, and you’re not left with much. Well, except for beautiful Marion Cotillard.

The Fountain

I think I probably liked Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain more than most critics did. Of course, the movie received terrible reviews, so that’s not saying very much at all. And on its own terms it’s undeniably monotonous, both visually and tonally. At some point though I started imagining what the screenplay might have looked like (because there must have been something there to attract Hugh Jackman), and that helped me focus on the underlying romantic intent and the intriguingly allusive structure. The film intertwines stories from three eras, all with Jackman: he’s a Spanish conquistador searching for a fabled “tree of life”; a modern-day doctor trying desperately to cure his wife’s cancer; and a futuristic space traveler who’s evolved to a higher state of being. There’s certainly something interesting there about human endurance and possibility and the persistence of love, but Aronofsky the director swamps it under a turgid pace and a visual approach that’s sometimes silly (the shots of the bald Jackman spinning through space in the lotus position, inside a little bubble, are particularly difficult to take seriously), often ugly (the yellow-grey colour scheme is distinctly uninspired). There’s barely a moment in the film that impacts or stimulates as you suspect it was meant to, and even if it had worked better, ultimately it would still have been just so much mumbo-jumbo. But you know, at least there’s something buried in there somewhere.

For your Consideration

For your Consideration is Christopher Guest’s latest creation, this time deploying his familiar stock company to (as Billy Wilder put it) strip away the phoney Hollywood tinsel to reveal the real tinsel underneath. The focus this time is a low budget film catapulted into the spotlight when Oscar buzz develops around some of its actors: the canvas stretches to include studio heads, TV entertainment shows, producers and agents. In truth the movie crams in so much that it can’t quite nail its main asset – the truly sad, needy actress played by Catherine O’Hara, who seems to be giving a real performance while most of those around her strike easy single notes. It all seems strangely lost in time – the fictional film in question is a hokey concoction the likes of which hasn’t been seen for years, and characters express amazement at such things as the Internet, cell phones, and printers. For every amusing non-sequitur (with Fred Willard once again providing the lion’s share of the laughs) there’s something else where the tone just seems off. Guest’s quizzical affection for all this can’t help but keep you occupied, and the film does have hints of ascending ambition, but it’s just too lightweight to evoke deep enthusiasm.

I’ve never been a particular James Bond fan, although growing up in Britain the films seemed as prominent as household furniture. I’m not sure, but I think the first thing I saw in a movie theatre without my parents may have been a double bill of The Spy who Loved Me and Moonraker (that’s right kids, they used to have double bills). Or maybe that came after The Concorde – Airport ’79, or as they called it in the UK in those days of staggered release schedules, Airport ’80 – the Concorde. Anyway, even at that young age, the image of stuffy Roger Moore and his stuntman saving the world without breaking a sweat was too fanciful for my own sensibility. More recently, I think The World is not Enough was as dull a viewing experience as I can remember. At least the last one, Die Another Day, had Halle Berry. But this only tells you that I’ve always been there to see them. Whatever one thinks of the series, it’s always been a cornerstone of the filmic cycle, each new release prompting the same retrospectives, comparisons and, mostly, lamentations that it’s not as good as it used to be (if it ever was).

Casino Royale

Well, here’s a surprise – the new Casino Royale is actually a good movie, and I don’t need to add the qualifier of being merely a good James Bond movie. Daniel Craig took some heat for being too short, too ugly, or whatnot, but he’s an actual actor, and his Bond is scarily intense, physical, and complex. These attributes seem to have infected everyone else involved, for Casino Royale is remarkably spare and focused. Not that it doesn’t provide the expected eye-popping action sequences – an early chase through a construction site, with Bond and his adversary leaping between cranes and platforms with a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon- style reckless grace, is ludicrous, but also heart-stopping, and rather beautiful. It’s also distinctly physical – you feel every crash and collision and aching joint. In fact, there’s surely never been a Bond movie where the protagonist is so notably scratched, bloodied, belittled, horribly tortured and brutalized.

So of all things, I occasionally found myself thinking of The Passion of the Christ, in that the committed sadism almost seems to be leaking someone’s underlying neurosis. Maybe it’s just expiation for so many decades of bad Bond movies. Either way, the film is unusually literate (perhaps partly due to Paul Haggis being one of the writers), grounded in plausible motivations, and anchored by underlying emotion. The lead actress is Eva Green, who is gorgeous, but not beyond the parameters of what normal life offers up, and her relationship with Bond is spiky and ultimately poignant. Throw in good use of location and intimations of intelligence in all respects, and it’s amazing how satisfying it all is – more satisfying in fact than The Departed or Flags of our Fathers. If this was the Bond movie I’d seen as a kid, who can say that my filmic evolution wouldn’t have gone in a totally different direction?


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fall movies #3

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2006)

Mutual Appreciation mostly justifies the excitement about Andrew Bujalski, an emerging ultra-low-budget wonder director. It’s an extremely modest examination of young people just trying to put it all together, shot in black and white, with an awesome grasp of tone and dialogue and an attitude that’s both quirky and meticulous. The comparisons to John Cassavetes don’t make much sense except superficially, but Bujalski is plainly his own man, and suggests an ability to carve out his own, very major thematic territory.


Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, arrived on a wave of hype bolstered by surprisingly strong critical enthusiasm. I just don’t get it. As you know, the movie follows a fake documentary format, built around dumbass Kazakhstan TV reporter Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) working his way through some of America’s crasser by ways, and has enough carefree insults and smears to offend anyone. Cohen’s work here is certainly rigorous and sustained, although I have to admit the character seems to me largely opportunistic, with his intelligence level varying from scene to scene depending on what suits the demands of the particular set-up (whatever the limitations of the fictionalized Kazakhstan, it’s just not plausible, for instance, that Borat doesn’t even know how a toilet works), and those set-ups, with real life people brushing against the incomprehensible interloper, generally aren’t qualitatively different in their basic impact from the gotcha outside broadcasts on late night talk shows.

As for the Jewish Cohen’s approach to anti-Semitism and racism, a character that firmly believes Jews can transform themselves into rats isn’t much of a prism for exploring the real nature of those phenomena. The movie is often funny of course, but the craft is mired at such a basic level that you quickly get tired of looking at it, and (for me anyway) the most spontaneous laughs come from such devices as mistaking a “retired” person for a “retard,” which doesn’t leave you with much to mull over afterwards. True, the portrayal of American idiocies (such as an evangelical get-together where Cohen’s parody of participation is largely indistinguishable from sincere immersion in it) is often intriguing, but if you’ve been paying attention, you knew the truth about all that years ago.

Shut Up!

I think the documentary Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing also suffers from a lack of true revelation. The three-woman ensemble got into trouble in London in 2003, when lead singer Natalie Maines spontaneously announced to a cheering crowd that they were ashamed of George W. Bush’s Texas roots. Once this filtered back home, they found themselves dumped from country radio play lists, subject to demonstrations and public CD burning and at least one death threat. We know all this already, and the movie isn’t interested in exploring the sizeable subculture (confined to news footage) that spawned this irrational reaction. It focuses instead on how the Chicks regrouped their career, recorded a new album (which went to Number One regardless) and galvanized their image in other ways; they don’t seem insincere when they say the controversy was ultimately the best thing that could have happened to them. Along with not very interesting family footage, it’s all somewhat reminiscent of the approach taken for Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, but is much more reserved and bland. I did like the music more than I expected to though.

Babel is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s showstopping new film, very much in the style of his previous Amores Perros and 21 Grams. “If you want to be understood,” says the tagline, “listen,” and the film weaves together four fraught situations, all marked, as someone once put it, by a failure to communicate. The movie’s commercial credentials stand on the segment with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, as a troubled couple whose coach tour through Morocco descends into hell when she’s shot by a stray bullet. Other segments follow their children, whose nanny whisks them on an illicit (and of course ill-fated – there’s barely any other kind of fate in Inarritu’s films) trip to Mexico; the poor Moroccan family responsible for the accident; and a deaf Japanese girl going through her own personal hell (whose link to the other three stories is quite a bit more tenuous). The film is completely enthralling, a marvellously orchestrated, thrillingly bleak, spatial and temporal and emotional whirl; in 21 Grams the fractured chronology sometimes had a more than arbitrary air, but Babel is much more assured.

But it ultimately has the same problem: I’m not sure what one can take away from it. I wasn’t as bothered as some critics by the excesses in the plotting – the film is about people placed out at the edge, where rationality breaks down – but the worldview that emerges from all this is merely trite. Put simply, global dysfunction isn’t merely a function of not listening, or not communicating – poverty and ecological breakdown and religious fanaticism are about much more than that. The film’s protagonists, caught in a cosmic daisy chain of cause and effect, can’t stand at all for any broader worldwide reality. I do note that it turns out much better, relatively, for the affluent American and Japanese characters than for the others, so Babel is at least realistic about where the odds lie in such dice games, but we all knew that already. Hardly anyone can match Inarritu for getting to the guts of individual scenes, and he cracks the whip as if the UN were his personal stock company, but in the end you’re just gawking at a collection of blindly dancing fools.

Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction, directed by Marc Forster, has Will Ferrell as a recessive IRS agent, with a life so unchanging he might as well be in Groundhog Day, whose celestial wires somehow get crossed with neurotic author Emma Thompson: his life is being governed by what she types into the manuscript of her new novel, and if she sticks with the game plan of killing off her main character, then Ferrell will be snuffed out too. This unusual contemporary dilemma has the effect of charging his batteries, allowing him to move in on desirable baker Maggie Gyllenhaal, under the tutelage of eccentric literature professor Dustin Hoffman. It’s a wondrous cast, and succeeds in adding a fair bit of resonance to a strangely (but not unappealingly) stark, almost clinical film. The movie is pretty straight-faced about the premise, mostly choosing to proceed deadpan with its implications, which lead to a showdown between the demands of life vs. art (as I sometimes like to say, place your bets now for which comes out on top). To really make an impact, Forster would probably have had to have cranked up the intellectual temperature quite a bit (Thompson’s novel, for instance, sounds mostly fussy and superficial, and couldn’t possibly attract the praise lauded on it by the supposedly discerning Hoffman), and Ferrell’s blank centre, although not unappealing, is nowhere near as effective as an actual actor might have been. Still, as such gimmicky creations go, this isn’t at all bad.  

Favourites of 2013

As always, I didn’t cover the year’s releases comprehensively enough to say these ten are the best, but they’re among the new films I most enjoyed watching. I would have said I really don’t go to the TIFF Lightbox that often, but the record shows it’s where I saw eight of these, so maybe I’m the archetypal Lightbox patron. I hope no one finds out!

All is Lost (J C Chandor)

Here’s a film to make you realize how little you actually saw Robert Redford in his heyday, how classic lighting and framing softened our sense of him, internally and externally. Chandor strips away his hiding places, both literally and figuratively, placing him alone and battered on a grievously damaged yacht, trying to survive. Likewise putting himself right out on the line, the director impressively avoids making his film too existentially schematic, or overloading it with symbolic significance; he certainly shows up the trite characterizations that marred Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity.

Amour (Michael Haneke)

Haneke’s Oscar-winning study of a long-married couple approaching the end of their lives is much less oppressive and depressing than some commentators claimed: the point, it seems to me, is that a love (or whatever it might be) that sustains an intertwined life for so long, and especially a life that’s not merely functional and morose, is created by and belongs entirely to its participants, inherently beyond the knowledge of others. It’s a mesmerizing viewing experience, composed with such specific weight that it holds itself in your mind for much longer than most films do, even good ones. And of course, as everyone says, the performances are fairly spellbinding.

Bastards (Claire Denis)

Denis’ latest film is one of her bleakest pieces of material: a contemporary film noir, constructed from classic raw materials, which might intermittently make you think of Polanski’s Chinatown, albeit with myriad differences. It again demonstrates her immense power as a filmmaker – forcing us into contradictory impressions and reactions, into constantly reassessing what’s before us and thus in some way ourselves, and her interests and affinities seem almost boundless. For me, it’s somewhat too tightly wound to carry the impact of her very finest works, but only for one of the greatest of filmmakers could you place such a richly controlled, allusive film on any kind of second rank.

Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mongiu)

Mongiu’s film is set in more or less the present day, in a small Orthodox convent set above a small rural Romanian town, where a young woman’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. It’s easy to simplify the picture as an exercise in metaphysical despair, and to caricature the simplicity of Mongiu’s filmic language. But it’s much more multi-faceted than that, drawing on very tangible attention to detail, and carefully placing the charged events in the context of the local community, of the mundane, transient preoccupations of the modern world. Perhaps in the end justice will be done, as that’s defined, but whether that bears any correlation with truth or progress is unknowable.  

Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche)

My review of this year’s winner at Cannes certainly contained more caveats than those of the other nine films included here: I called it “a kind of greatest hits album of young contemporary lesbianism” and said: “if you have qualms about films that define women by their physicality and sexuality to a degree that men rarely have to endure, you won’t find much consolation here.” So maybe in a stronger year, it wouldn’t make my best ten. But its main actress Adele Exarchopoulos is a mesmerizing presence, powering a film that works best if you think less about the modern world and more about old actress-infatuated melodramas.

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

Baumbach’s gently shifting study of a young woman trying to make her way in modern-day New York – that is, in Girls territory, basically - is so subtle and skillful, it almost makes that show, and his own previous work, look heavy-handed; among much else, it confirms all the buzz about its star and co-writer Greta Gerwig as the truest current heir to classic Hollywood. The film’s evocations of the French New Wave, and its black and white cinematography, place it in a tradition of eternally provocative and fulfilling cinema, created out of relative poverty of means, ventilated by a rejection of deadening conventions.

Ginger & Rosa (Sally Potter)

Potter’s film follows two friends in England in 1962, deep in the folds of the Cold War and of nuclear escalation; a time when it’s plausible to think the world might be on the edge of wiping itself out, spawning a fruitful time for radicalism and activism. Potter immerses herself with great skill in the intimacy of interactions and experiences, and if the film is relatively more formally conventional than most of her previous work, its “feminist” power is undiluted, as Ginger ultimately starts to feel her way to a radicalized identity beyond rhetoric and clichés. 

Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)

Kiarostami’s Japanese-made film, built around a young woman sent by a pimp to the house of an elderly professor, was largely marginalized as a prime example of “art” cinema, but I found the film as suspenseful as any straightforward thriller, almost unbearably so in its final stretch. It lacks the raw elements of clichéd filmic beauty but is as ravishing as anything you’ll ever see: every scene is a small miracle of composition and light, sometimes astounding you with its simplicity, sometimes with its detail. And it draws meaningfully on notions of female oppression and lack of empowerment, and on a broader feeling of siege and dissatisfaction.

Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas)

Assayas’s film about a group of young people in 1971, immersed in art and politics, represents a very specific and very French time and place; among much else, it’s consistently ravishing to look at. But its horizons are far from narrow – the film overflows with ideas and possibilities, causing you to reflect on (in Assayas’ words) the “predetermined obsolescence” of so many other movies. In the end the characters start to move on or compromise, but what wouldn’t you give to live in a time where even the compromises are so thrilling?

A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke)

Jia’s masterly film consists of four loosely-connected episodes, each a story of systemic injustice in modern-day China, ending in personal tragedy. At times, it has the startlingly brutal and bloodily stylized moments that form the basic grammar of the “action” genre, but it redeploys them not as periods, leading nowhere except into their own sick entrails, but rather as question marks, profoundly probing the environment that gave rise to them. Although certainly pessimistic, it’s constantly visually ravishing, filled with remarkable compositions.

Stephen Sondheim

One of my great regrets where theatre is concerned, although I still hope to live to see it remedied, is that I’ve seen relatively few of Stephen Sondheim’s works on stage. I’ve seen Sweeney Todd twice, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Assassins and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, so that’s not bad. But I’ve never happened to be in the vicinity of any production of Company (although supposedly there’s a Toronto staging on the way), A Little Night Music or Follies. I have the cast recordings of all these, among others, as well as many other albums where Sondheim songs are covered, so I have it pretty well covered in many respects, but he’s always felt to me like a mountain with much distance left to climb.

Sondheim’s status

Sondheim became even more awesome in my eyes after I read his two recent volumes of collected lyrics; they seriously altered my sense of the nature and quality of songwriting. Since reading the books, in which Sondheim unsparingly dissects and evaluates his own work and that of other songwriters (although only dead ones, out of consideration), I’ve been even more allergic than I was before to strained phrasing and forced rhymes and other contrivances. His fastidiousness in this regard sometimes seems like a curse of sorts. Although the works I mentioned above are all famous and esteemed, none of them ever came close to the enormous popular successes of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Les Miserables or the like, and you regularly come across the notion (even if it’s only being cited so as to debunk it) that Sondheim doesn’t write catchy or easily grasped songs. Indeed, some of his songs are so melodically and lyrically challenging that only the most technically accomplished performers can pull them off. But others are as sweet and sparse and pure as anyone’s ever written.

The perceived absence of “hummability” may be in part a function of how the songs, taken in isolation, never give up all their secrets. “Send in the Clowns”, to cite one of the most famous, can be generally understood by anyone as a proud expression of mixed emotions, but no one would write it quite that way as a stand-alone work. Let a Sondheim song into your mind, and with it comes a rush of complex ripples and patterns, of interconnected stories, unfinished conversations, looming dangers. The resonances are all the richer for the astounding variety of his concepts and settings – from fairy tales, to Georges Seurat, to a musical built around presidential assassinations, for God’s sake; thinking over his work, you constantly have to reorient yourself, to transcend limits. There’s a wonderful sense of growth and fluidity to his body of work, a sense which deepens further after reading the books – he lays out his false starts, songs that got cut from the shows, others that got rewritten later on; it’s like staring into alternate universes with their own alternative Sondheims. Listening to his work is expansive and mind-enhancing, where so many other contemporary musicals merely provide dully soothing confirmation.  

Six by Sondheim

Sondheim himself, knowingly or not, perfectly stokes his own legend. He’s a lover of mysteries and puzzles, and co-wrote (with Anthony Perkins!) the accomplished 1973 mystery The Last of Sheila. In past decades, you’d read about him being solitary and emotionally isolated; this was in part just old-time code for being gay (he now says he first fell in love at the age of 60), but it fed a sense of labyrinthine unknowability. Sometimes he’s had his finger eerily on the pulse of a particular moment – Company, about the ups and downs of marriage, is a prime example – at other times he’s gone into thematic territory no one else would ever have dreamed of exploring. He is, quite simply, someone you could explore and contemplate almost indefinitely.

The fine documentary Six by Sondheim, currently showing on HBO, captures this abundance very well. As the title suggests, the director James Lapine, a frequent collaborator, structures the film around six of Sondheim’s most prominent songs, chosen to reflect different aspects of his craft and artistic personality. The nature of the showcase varies from one to the next: for “Being Alive” from Company, thrilling footage of the original cast in the recording studio; for “Send in the Clowns”, a compilation of past performances by everyone from Sinatra to Streisand to Judi Dench; for “I’m Still Here,” that legendary anthem to a veteran female trooper’s fortitude, a new performance by the male and not particularly old Jarvis Cocker (it works). Although I read somewhere that the variety of approaches may represent budgetary constraints (the original plan having been to create a new performance for each of the six), it actually works perfectly, balancing commemoration and renewal.

Opening Doors

Around these pillars, Lapine crams in a remarkable amount of Sondheim himself, culled from more than fifty years of interviews and documentaries, right up to the present (my main criticism is that it isn’t longer, always a good sign). The inevitable wear and tear on him is less striking than the remarkable constancy of his voice, his self-awareness, his precision in diagnosing his own achievements (as crisp in person as it was on the page). The hard work involved in making something appear effortless is a show business cliché by now, but I’ve never seen the truth of it conveyed as well as it is here: you get the feeling that if asked, Sondheim could explain the motivation underlying every note and rhyme in each of his songs (“Send in the Clowns,” for instance, was written in very short stanzas, with lots of room for breaths, to accommodate the limitations of the original Little Night Music cast member Glynis Johns). In one of the many archival highlights, he coaches a performer through one of the songs from Sweeney Todd, masterfully shaping the young man’s sense of the material – it’s almost as thrilling as listening to the song itself.

Another of the new performances, of “Opening Doors” from Merrily we Roll Along (which he describes as his most autobiographical song), features Sondheim himself, delivering the “self-criticism” he put into the mouth of a Broadway impresario type: “There’s not a tune you can hum, there’s not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-dum.” The irony, for Sondheim lovers, is that this itself comes with a tune as alluring as anything in more ostensibly crowd-pleasing shows. Still, his appearance in the role suggests he’s at peace with the road he’s traveled. One hopes so, because it’s clear from the documentary that it hasn’t always been easy to be Stephen Sondheim. For me, he’s an almost holy figure, someone whose own creative toil alleviates the spiritual poverty of the world.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Fall movies #2

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2006)

Some more movies from recent months.

Philip Noyce’s Catch a Fire follows a young South African who’s wrongly accused in the early 80’s of a terrorist act at the oil refinery where he works; he and his wife are tortured, and although he’s eventually let go, he becomes radicalized and joins the ANC. This is yet another Western film about Africa that can’t transcend glossiness; there’s little sense of the townships, of the brutality of apartheid, of poverty and deprivation. As usual, way too much time is given to a focal white character, a cop played by Tim Robbins who does his job while struggling with his conscience. The film becomes increasingly choppy and incoherent, although of course South Africa’s ultimate liberation is stirring no matter how often you see it depicted. It’s a true story (actor Derek Luke, who’s too actorly from beginning to end, joins the real man on screen in the end) but as presented here seems merely like a heavy-handed contrivance.

Deliver us from Evil

Amy Berg’s Deliver us from Evil could be a companion piece to Kirby Dick’s 2004 Twist of Faith – two documentaries about sex abuse by Catholic priests, focusing on the victims’ testimony, the perpetrators’ sly self-righteousness, and the church machine’s immense cover-up. Both films leave no doubt about the church’s failure and effective complicity in the abuse, and if Berg’s film has the upper hand, it’s only because of a somewhat more skilful approach overall and, in particular, because of her startling access to Father Oliver O’Grady, who raped and molested children for decades, spent seven years in jail, and now lives in Ireland. O’Grady is as glib as any politician you’ll ever see, acknowledging just enough wrongdoing to seem sincere, while never grappling with the scale of what he did (his youngest victim was nine months old). I suppose the film might seem one-sided to the extent that it simply seems to leave nothing for us to salvage from Catholicism – based on dogma appearing nowhere in the Bible, run on Mafia-like principles, placing appearance and continuity ahead of the rights of children, and so forth – but I cannot myself think at this moment what the other side might be.

Flags of our Fathers

Clint Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers is another fine film from the astonishing veteran. It focuses on the famous photograph of American soldiers raising the flag over Iwo Jima, which became an instant icon when it appeared in 1944. The surviving soldiers were scooped up into a massive war bond drive, acclaimed as heroes even though they knew they’d done no more (and in some cases much less) than their dead comrades, and they met with mixed fortunes later in life. Eastwood’s canvas here is remarkably intricate: the film’s two spines are the recreation of Iwo Jima and the bond drive’s razzle dazzle, but it expands to include families of fallen soldiers and recollections in the present day, all presented with a fluidity that makes you wonder if Eastwood wants to become Alain Resnais.

Other aspects of the film are more stately. The focus on the need for heroes, and the institutional carelessness with the details of how they’re created, is rather conventional (and I couldn’t help wishing that the possible contemporary parallels were drawn out a little more fully), and the film is quietly respectful toward American heartland values. For all the loss and grief on display, it often feels a little distant – the individual characters are less vivid than the military and political machinery that sweeps them along, and while that’s not at all inappropriate to the theme, Eastwood doesn’t take the approach to a point that might be truly challenging. Most viewers seem to respect the film more than they respond emotionally to it, and I tend to feel the same way, but at the same time it’s almost ceaselessly admirable.

Running with Scissors, directed by Ryan Murphy, is based on a memoir by Augusten Burroughs, who has apparently pronounced himself highly satisfied with the filmed results. I must admit I find it hard to imagine any (good) book of which this could possibly be the ideal movie, for it’s a fairly chaotic, distinctly unpersuasive experience. The Burroughs character sees his parents split up in his early teens, and then bounces back and forth between his emotionally fraught mother, who fancies herself a poet (well-played by Annette Bening, but nevertheless a creation you just get tired of experiencing), and her incompetent but manipulative doctor (Brian Cox), who brings in tow an entire family of oddballs (including Jill Clayburgh and Gwyneth Paltrow). The film seems most at ease when merely teasing us with the lightly grotesque, at which times it feels like a coarser version of something like The Royal Tenenbaums, but the emotional content is mostly fumbled, so that by the end the supposed highs and lows are barely distinguishable. The main message seems to be merely about the necessity of boundaries and structure, but given the uncertain tone and rambling approach the point hardly carries much conviction; it seems to me that Bening’s character is ultimately treated with rather offhand cruelty, whereas Cox’s is over-indulged. Whatever modest pleasures the film has to offer are basically exhausted halfway through.

One of the Best

Todd Field’s Little Children is an infinitely stronger film. I was lukewarm about Field’s much admired debut, In the Bedroom, finding it a bit forced, particularly in the final detour into vigilantism. Early in Little Children, I wondered if I might have a similar reaction, and I do think it’s a little too precious at times, but any reservations are far outweighed by the dazzling overall skill and intelligence. Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson play suburban stay at home caregivers, both in rather arid marriages, who connect at the swimming pool and start an affair. Meanwhile, the community obsesses about the presence of a freed sex offender, back at home with his frail but strong-willed mother. The film is quiet, immensely nuanced, with a prevailing tone of bewildered trauma; sometimes it’s satiric, sometimes outright scary, including many magnificent individual scenes and a wealth of surprising detail, all filtered through a perfect cast. Overall it conveys a pervasive uncertainty about what men and women can possibly do for each other – everyone is gripped by the “hunger for an alternative” that the Winslet character cites in her book club discussion of Madame Bovary, but any momentum is displaced into fear or regression (although the voice over strikes a moderately optimistic final note). It’s most daring in suggesting the spectrum that links the child molester to the merely unsettled male, creating huge ambiguity about real motivations and virtues. This is certainly one of the year’s best American films.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Depicting slavery

Many might argue that as Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave already achieves so much, it’s churlish to criticize it for not achieving even more, but that’s all I can honestly do. It’s based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a black man who lived freely in New York before he was kidnapped in 1841 and transported to Louisiana, renamed “Platt” and sold into slavery. His ordeal continued until 1853, when he met a Canadian who helped send word to Northup’s family and friends, eventually effecting his release. He documented his experiences in a book, and became active in the abolitionist movement.

Twelve Years a Slave

In a Film Comment interview, McQueen talked about how he “wanted to make a movie about slavery and didn’t know how,” trying without success to develop a screenplay before happening on Northup’s work. “I read his book and was astonished,” said McQueen. “I thought it read like a screenplay. I saw images on every page.” Although one respects McQueen’s intention and the creative difficulties attaching to it, this instantly points to my own reservations about the film. The fact of Northup’s story being true doesn’t make it the true story of slavery. The film doesn’t allow us much light or redemption, but the little that it allows is nevertheless too much. The Toronto film festival audiences gave it the people’s choice award, but you can argue a fully achieved film on the subject of slavery should leave them shuddering in pain, landing far outside the territory of smiling commendations.

A scene from the middle of the film sums up its limitations. Solomon is sent to the local store, with a tag around his neck to evidence his ownership; he briefly thinks of escaping and leaves the path, where he runs into a lynching. His tag secures his safety; as he walks away, the camera briefly shows the faces of the two men, then McQueen frames the murder taking place behind him. As a cinematic flourish, it’s reminiscent of those clichéd shots where the action hero strides away from the explosion or other mayhem, his control over the situation removing any need to look back. Of course, the intention here is very different: Solomon has no choice but to keep walking – he can do nothing for the men, and his ability to keep on going depends on not becoming consumed by the brutalities he’s witnessed. But still, the scene is about the black man who’s walking away; not the unknown stories of the two who are being killed in the background. As I was watching it, this struck me as a morally wretched choice on the director’s part, especially because nothing about the visual construction suggested an awareness of the matters I’m raising here.

Dialogue with America

Another kind of problem attaches to the film’s casting: McQueen fills just about every white role possessing more than two lines with a recognizable “name.”  Watching CP24 during the festival, an onscreen caption at one point identified the film’s stars as Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch, with no mention of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon. Of course, McQueen isn’t to be blamed for the carelessness of some underpaid TV production assistant, and commercial realities no doubt apply here too. But deliberately or not, McQueen has thereby allowed his recreation of the past, and the clarity of the core experience, to be distorted and infiltrated by transient cultural baggage and tired celebrity resonance.

This might be productive if the film were deliberately engaging in a dialogue with today’s America. As a formal institution, slavery is far in the past, but many of its practical effects persist in only slightly altered form: a privileged and mostly white elite drawing on a vast bedrock of poverty and disadvantage, filled with people for whom things get worse and worse, with chronic lack of empathy, if not outright racism, endemic in virtually every aspect of public policy (and marked by a self-serving appropriation of religion, something also depicted in the film). These conditions make slavery a matter of contemporary as well as historical gravity, but McQueen’s film feels mostly shielded by the meticulousness of its period details (Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, although a lesser film in most respects, was more successful in constructing bridges between eras, albeit mostly through juvenile methods). The difficulty of shaping the material shows through in other ways too, such as its unclear depiction of the passage of time: if not for the title, one might assume the events covered maybe three or four years rather than twelve.

As I suggested, maybe I’m asking more of the film than it could ever have achieved. Writing in The New York Times, Stanley Fish said the film “withhold(s) from the audience an outlet for either its hope or its sympathy” and went on: “I think what McQueen is doing is remedying the defect Northup detected in his own narrative. ‘If I have failed in anything,’ Northup writes in his final paragraph, ‘it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture.’ McQueen has carefully removed the bright sides.” But this overlooks the most obvious “bright side” of all, that Solomon came into the experience with knowledge of what freedom could be, and ultimately regained it. His story allows some basis for faith and belief in “American values,” even if it shows them to be wretchedly capricious. Still, the fact that even the ultra-engaged Fish perceives the film as being so difficult to watch - as being “basically an anthology of beatings and whippings” – suggests that calculations about the audience’s tolerance  might have been necessary, and were duly applied.

Strengths and limitations

For me, the most wrenching story belongs to another of the slaves, Patsy, prized by her deranged master as the most productive of his cotton pickers, but also sexually abused by him, and so in turn mentally and physically abused by his wife (I’m sure the point that slavery corroded the sanity of the powerful as well as the weak is a valid one, but it seems to occupy relatively too much of the film here, as it did Tarantino’s). At one point, Patsy asks Solomon to help her die, but he refuses; there’s no sign that anything will ever happen to alleviate her suffering. We see her as Solomon sees her, as one of the earth’s saddest creatures, but subject to the same limitation, that ultimately the film allows him to stop looking. Still, her presence in the film is one of its most rawly affecting, unspoiled aspects.

I should emphasize that these criticisms are all the mark of a “good” picture, in that Twelve Years a Slave promotes productive and stimulating reflection on how to appropriately and effectively represent enormous, complex events. It’s always powerful, always engrossing, always meaningful. For all the reasons I’ve stated, I think its impact is unnecessarily limited and skewed, but given how little we’ve come to expect from society and ourselves, there’s no doubt only so much we can expect from a single film.