Sunday, September 28, 2014

Some boring movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2006)

It must be amazing to be Bryan Singer and, from the looks of it, be allowed to make any movie you want to make. Orson Welles said something about a film set being the biggest train set a boy ever had, and something of that delight comes across in Singer’s films. His new one, Superman Returns, even features a train set, part of a vast model landscape in the lair of arch-villain Lex Luthor. And the film itself, resurrecting the Superman franchise after almost twenty years, and with many widely reported false starts in the years since then, is a dream opportunity for a Superman fan. Singer’s approach is highly conscientious, with a plot that picks up where the films left off in the 80’s (he retains John Williams’ original theme), touching base with all the core elements of the mythology and adding a carefully plotted new threat, courtesy of Luthor and some leftover crystals from Superman’s home planet.

Superman Returns

You can hear a “but” coming, and here it is: the movie is as boring as hell. I don’t completely know why – maybe it’s true that Superman doesn’t have the right resonance for current times. He’s basically a square, and his powers are so vast that it’s hard to feel much emotional investment in whether or not he pulls off his various feats. The special effects are mostly great, which may count for a lot on an Oscar judging panel, but doesn’t hit you where it hurts. And then Singer mostly squanders the cast. After The Usual Suspects, the prospect of him directing Kevin Spacey and Parker Posey would have been thrilling…well, don’t ask how it turns out here. And don’t ask either about Superman Returns’ only point of thematic interest – the horrendously pretentious allusions to Jesus Christ (including a beating that sure seemed reminiscent of Passion Of The Christ). What’s the point of meddling with such stuff unless you have a point to make about Jesus, or the nature of faith, or the power of religion, or something.

Anyway, I wanted to like it, and I had a hunch that maybe I would, but instead I just ended up feeling old. But regardless of whether that’s true, Bryan Singer should put away the train set for a while. And make something like A Scanner Darkly, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s book, and a film that’s been anticipated for decades by a small but fervent group. Now the versatile Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, The School of Rock) has delivered it. It’s a twisted tale of drug-induced hallucinations, surveillance and manipulation in the near-future, and Linklater heightens its surreal underbelly through the same technique he used in Waking Life, where real actors (including Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr. and Winona Ryder) are filmed in real settings and then the images are “rotoscoped” to produce an intensely vivid, fluid animation.

The dialogue has an unusual density and the film has an anguished underbelly that serves as a sober contrast to breathier views of the future; overall, Linklater’s versatility and control are astonishing. Ultimately though I didn’t find it a very different viewing experience from many of the recent films that mess with our sense of reality and relationship to the narrative; it’s a hermetic creation that barely even seems to need a viewer. This isn’t inappropriate to the film’s traumatized fabric and the main character’s fractured grasp on reality, but still makes for a movie that will likely be more admired than loved. What I’m saying is, it’s kind of boring too.

Who Killed The Electric Car?

I shot my environmental wad a few weeks ago in writing about Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, so I’ll spare you an extended response to Chris Paine’s Who Killed The Electric Car?, which would read much the same way. In the mid-nineties there seemed to be good momentum behind a wholly electric car, in particular GM’s EV-1 model – ten years later, the US car companies have all but quit that line of growth, surrendering the market to Toyota’s Prius. Meanwhile of course, the case for the technology (oil prices, Middle East turmoil, global warming, faltering hydrogen technology) just gets stronger and stronger. The movie tells the story effectively enough, mostly from a sun-baked Californian perspective with the obligatory sprinkling of celebrities, finding enough blame to go around, but also finding enough of the de rigeur room for optimism that America will come together to do the right thing as it always has. Overall, watching the entire film doesn’t add much to what you can glean from the trailer and the reviews. It’s much closer to being boring than I would have guessed.

Two Comedies

Strangers with Candy is based on a Comedy Central series I’ve never seen0, with Amy Sedaris as a long-time jailbird with a depraved history who goes back to high school. Liam Lacey said in the Globe: “Audiences should find the film brilliant or repellent. At the most interesting moments, it’s a bit of both.” Well, I certainly wish that were right. I have no idea what the case for its brilliance might be. It’s negligible as social satire, and barely any more effective as a satire of the high school genre (as if, in any event, that would count for much). It occasionally makes more of a stab in the direction of repellence, faintly evoking John Waters, but stops way short of anything truly biting or transgressive. As a fan of Sarah Silverman’s stand-up film, I kept wishing some of her lines could have been worked into the script. The film does have plenty of striking one-liners, some pleasant cameos, some strikingly surreal set-ups (I liked the gym teacher who subjects the students to a recreation of the Pamplona running of the bulls, with real bulls), and it avoids the flagrant stupidity and carelessness that makes many contemporary comedies painful to watch, but…well…when you come right down to it, I guess you can guess the adjective…

It must be amazing to be Kevin Smith, and to be a famous filmmaker with some degree of freedom…and then gradually realize you just don’t have any ideas. Clerks II might as well be called Cry for Help, particularly if you remember Smith stating at the time of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back that he was done with that entire territory. But Jersey Girl was a flop, so here he is, back where he started in 1994. It’s actually rather endearing how the situation of the dead-end protagonists mirrors Smith’s own lack of momentum, and no film of his comes without laughs, even if they all come from rearranging the same ten or twelve words in a different order. Who is he kidding though…this is lame lame stuff. And by casting his own wife as a self-absorbed shrew who’s comprehensively overshadowed by Rosario Dawson (the film’s only engaging presence, just as she was in Rent), he also loses points for lack of gallantry. I bet even he was mostly bored through this one.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Mostly music

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2008)

I remember someone referring to John Sayles as a determinedly independent filmmaker who then strangely makes movies with many of the faults of mainstream ones, a judgment you might aptly apply to his new one Honeydripper. It’s satisfying overall, but incredibly clunky and clich├ęd at times. Set in 1950’s Alabama, it revolves around Danny Glover as the owner of a rickety watering hole (the Honeydripper) who hopes to give business a boost by kicking the live music from old-time blues to new-style guitar; he books a big time singer, but then has to improvise when the guy doesn’t show up.

Around this are a dizzying number of subplots, not always welded together with much finesse, and the script is full of redundancies and repetitions. For all of that activity, it often feels strangely flat and lacking in energy. It’s a fascinating period, both for the social attitudes (especially re those of the local whites, it’s often hard to believe it’s even as recent as 1950) and the cultural evolution embodied by the Honeydripper’s musical transition. Sadly, the film just isn’t strong enough to be trustworthy as a window on history. But it generally ambles along pleasantly enough, the music is good, and there are some eloquent moments.  

Joe Strummer

Julien Temple’s Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, a documentary about the Clash’s lead singer, covers another musical turning point. They were one of the pioneering punk bands, perhaps the best; after they split up in the mid-80’s, Strummer spent much time in search of a new direction, ultimately successfully via a new band and new relationship, before suddenly dying in 2002. Temple is, as usual, a master of assemblage, piecing together an often-impressionistic splatter of images, but there’s always a hit and miss feeling to how he navigates through the material.

The movie isn’t that effective at conveying basic information, nor even at showcasing the music, although that’s all readily elsewhere I guess, and it certainly overuses clips from 1984 and Animal Farm and suchlike, lest we lose for a second the taste of rebellion. Most of the interviewees (seemingly including almost everyone who ever knew the man, and a few celebs who didn’t) are caught during a series of campfire get-togethers, recreating one of Strummer’s favourite pastimes and generating a nice sense of conviviality. For Clash fans, it’s a solid, moderately idiosyncratic tribute. 

Bono’s in there too, and he’s also in U2 3D, capturing the band in performance in Buenos Aires – it’s in 3D and it’s on the giant Imax screen. U2 are a great band, no question, and seem on blistering form here – it’s a fine record of outstanding rock musicianship. The 3D aspect itself is certainly a net positive – there are times when you’re studying Bono more closely than anyone other than his wife should be allowed to, and I can hardly remember a film that conveyed such a detailed sense of a complex physical space. Very fluidly edited, it’s a terrific aesthetic experience. But it’s also rather weird – there are many times when the extreme presence of the foreground makes the background seem flatter than you’d register otherwise – and the technical virtuosity sometimes mutes the gritty sense of occasion you get from other rock movies. It gave me a hyper-awareness of being isolated from what I was watching, which isn’t really what you go to the movies for.

Still Life

By contrast, Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life completely enveloped me. The film contains two related stories of people coming to Fengjie, on the banks of China’s Yangtze River, in search of a missing spouse. The city is slowly being demolished as part of the massive Three Gorges dam project, and the region’s spectacular natural beauty recedes behind the atmospheric haze and the immense physical and social upheaval. While some do well, most don’t, kicked from their homes to make do as best they can, scrambling for money and space and identity; there are hints of both de facto slavery and widespread violence and corruption. Jia observes his people closely and sympathetically and produces a powerful human document; you can’t help your mind wandering to how advanced (indulgent?) by comparison are our notions of self-actualization and minimum entitlements.

The film’s not all bleak by any means – people find ways to get by; there are elevating moments of bonding, shared meals, Chow Yun Fat impersonations. Jia has a taste for rather glaring visual metaphors – such as the building that uproots itself and blasts off like a space shuttle in the background of one shot – but perhaps his point is the impossibility of monumental transformation for this region of China, whatever one may hear of its economic miracle (although even the apparently least advantaged of citizens seem to carry cell phones).

After the more urban and aesthetically crafted The World, a fine study of alienation among some of the more privileged of China’s new generation, and a couple of fascinating documentaries that largely continue the project of Still Life, Jia is generating an important body of work now, even if it’s hard to think of a potentially great director whose films are so necessarily pessimistic. In the past, the most important filmmakers could afford to dwell on us, on matters of self-definition and the human condition, but what if we’re entering a phase that can’t afford to venerate these as key virtues, because matters of survival assert themselves and make existential fine-tuning appear frivolous? What can we ask or expect of cinema then?

Lars and the Real Girl

I suppose there will always be some place – although we can only hope it’s a diminishing one – for fables such as Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl. I was put off by the premise and avoided this one for months, while noting its amazing longevity at the Carlton, but then it got an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay, so I cracked. Ryan Gosling plays Lars, a small-town sad sack character who suddenly produces a glamorous girlfriend, Bianca. The only trouble is, she’s an anatomically correct sex doll who came through the mail. But to Lars she’s real – either that or he’s carrying on the charade well beyond normal endurance (including in their private moments together) – and incidentally, it’s a chaste relationship too.

Conveniently, prompted by doctor’s advice and what we’re told is a form of love for Lars, everyone in town goes along with this, to the extent that Bianca soon has a more active social schedule than he does. Gosling is once again magnificent, like a gentle young De Niro in the detail he brings to his neurotic protagonist. And Gillespie handles the tone very well – it’s not too outrageous, not too preachy: it’s gentle and quirky, thus allowing the conclusion (presumably reached by a good number of Oscar voters) that we’re watching something touching and insightful and viable. But for all the finesse, this is ultimately the kind of codswallop that only exists in movies – a social and psychological nonsense, with no good music, whether literally or (re Jia Zhang-ke) figuratively.

Monday, September 15, 2014

More fall movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2005)

Phil Morrison’s Junebug is one of the season’s wonders. It’s a low budget film about a North Carolina family where the eldest son, who long ago moved away to Chicago, returns to visit, with a sophisticated new wife. It’s an astoundingly subtle picture, spare but perfectly weighted, accumulating a remarkable series of implications. No recent film better portrays the “American heartland” so often referred to – George W. Bush isn’t mentioned in the movie, but it tells you everything you need to know about how he gets away with it – and it’s a borderline-horrific portrayal of family dynamics. The film is ambiguous enough that it could alternatively be read as a light, quirky semi-comedy (it works just fine as such) – as such it’s a masterful prism for exposing the prevailing complacency, and a great achievement by the unknown Morrison.

Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man is a documentary about Timothy Treadwell, who spent thirteen summers living in the wilds of Alaska among the bears, fancying himself their friend and protector, until one of them ate him. Treadwell left behind a hundred hours of video footage – containing some stunning footage of the bears, and much semi-crazed rambling on his part. This must have constituted a godsend for Herzog, and he uses the found material with superb intuition and judgment, fleshing out Treadwell’s story with interviews, and creating something that’s both scrupulous and respectful while remaining true to his own (less romantic but as bull-headed) sensibility. The film has been widely acclaimed, setting up the tantalizing possibility of Werner Herzog winning an Oscar?

Separate Lies, written and directed by Julian Fellowes, is a very British chronicle of an upper-middle class couple ripped apart by adultery and accidental homicide. It’s much less scintillating than Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (the screenplay for which won Fellowes an Oscar), but has some good moments (mainly thanks to lead actor Tom Wilkinson) and an intriguing overall shape. The German film The Edukators follows three young people whose bite-sized political activism suddenly lands them in big trouble; the movie dwindles away as it progresses, becoming increasingly arbitrary and energy-less, and failing  to offer as much actual political content as the premise seems to warrant.

Two for the Money, with Al Pacino mentoring Matthew McConaughey through a decline and fall as a big-time sports betting advisor, is a badly under-nourished movie with limited pay-off – Pacino may actually have played the part in his sleep. Tony Scott’s Domino, loosely based on real-life bounty hunter Domino Harvey, is an even bigger mess, and it received apocalyptically bad reviews in many quarters. This is not unfair, although the film’s escalating incoherence, frantic hyperactivity, odd approach to reality, and intermittent hints of social and political consciousness sometimes suggest (without ever actually delivering) true turbulent ambition. At the other end of the scale, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio is a levelheaded account of a 50’s mother-of-ten who keeps the family afloat by her consistent success in skill-testing competitions. The material is inherently rather drab, but director Jane Anderson finds entertaining ways to ventilate it, and it pushes the sentimental buttons deftly enough. Ultimately though it’s considerably less resonant than Far From Heaven and The Hours, in which star Julianne Moore played largely similar roles. 

Marc Forster’s Stay is yet another movie in which it’s clear from the start that things are not as they seem, and the only object is to wait for the exact nature of the revelation (is it all a dream? are they characters in a book? are they within a scientific experiment on an alien planet? etc.), and to hope you extract some fun and stimulation along the way. The film has Ewan MacGregor as a psychiatrist treating a troubled young man (Ryan Gosling) who intends to kill himself in a few days’ time; Naomi Watts is the doctor’s girlfriend, herself a survivor of a past suicide attempt. The movie is technically well executed, but is gloomy and monotonous, and the pay-off adds little to the catalogue – I’m sure a second viewing would allow a better appreciation of the intricacy of the film’s design, but would not be time well spent in any other sense. After Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, this seems like a bizarre retrenchment by Forster, only explicable as some kind of technical self-training exercise.

Ben Younger’s Prime is a comedy (I guess) about a Jewish psychiatrist who finds out her 37-year-old (non-Jewish) female patient is dating her 23-year-old son...and doesn’t like it. The movie has zero laughs, although I admit I wore a benevolent smile through much of it, largely because of the highly empathetic, too-good-for-the-movie performance by Uma Thurman as the patient (the usually mightier Meryl Streep is on this occasion no better than the movie requires). The thing has no authorial personality, and not to get extra-textual, but now that we have the inspirational precedent of Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, the ending seems gutless.

Mirrormask is a British fantasy from the Jim Henson studios, about a little girl who enters a dream world; some of the design elements, but not the overall tone (which is surprisingly low-key and uninsistent), are reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki. Twenty years ago the movie would surely have seemed like a marvel, but we are in an age of visual marvels if of nothing else, and it could do no better than a single screen at Canada Square. Gore Verbinski’s The Weather Man is another barely appreciated film, a semi-comic character study of Nicolas Cage’s local TV forecaster. Thirty years ago it might have been directed by Robert Altman and amounted to something darkly probing; instead, it’s often overly glib and scattershot, with a very soft arrival point. Michael Caine, as Cage’s terminally ill father, is the actor best attuned to the material’s existential possibilities.

Sam Mendes’ Jarhead starts off like a remake of Full Metal Jacket and explicitly references Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, but the first President Bush’s Iraqi war was no Vietnam, and the film shows how a young recruit’s jittery dreams of action end up in prolonged frustration, generating substantial existential malaise. It’s an intriguing and technically impressive film, and its inherently undramatic core is quite enterprising for a big budget Hollywood film (although it works around this by weaving in some combat near misses and lots of other often-goofy incident). The picture’s ultimate purpose is a little ambiguous – it’s too engaged by military spectacle to convince as being antiwar, but if it’s merely anti- the particular war depicted, then it’s missing a lot of political context (its main point is probably broader, about the inherent arbitrary chaos of war’s impact on the individual). Still, I prefer this to the ham-fisted, basically hypocritical anti-violence musings of Mendes’ last film Road to Perdition.

More next time...

Sunday, September 7, 2014

More Big Movies!

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2007)

Ten Canoes is the first film made in an Australian indigenous language, set thousands of years in the past. A group of men goes on a hunting trip into a swamp, and on the way the elder tells his younger brother a story, which we also see enacted. It’s a chronicle of social and sexual frustration and of strife between neighbouring tribes, weaving in sorcery and mysticism. The quirky moral of the story struck me as being “careful what you wish for” – Stephen Holden in The New York Times pegs it as “All in good time.”

The film, directed by Rolf de Heer, is inherently interesting and admirable, but I had more reservations than I’d hoped for. Although the evocation of these ancient events seems diligent enough, the film always feels much more like a product of our own filmmaking culture than something born of a distant one (see Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat The Fast Runner for an example of the converse). The dual structure, switching metronomically back and forth between stories, and between black and white and colour, becomes a ponderous reminder of cinema making at work, and within that it resorts to too many familiar devices (for example, the men discuss various possibilities of action, and we see each one visualized on the screen, just as you might in a standard heist movie). There’s also an insistent narration, spoken by David Gulpilil (of Walkabout) that soon gets to be like listening to: “This is Dick. Dick is thinking of running. Do you see now how Dick runs?” And on and on.

No doubt there I’m disrespecting the rhythms and cadences of an important oral tradition. But that’s the impact of the film’s finicky calculations. The sometimes-bawdy dialogue also seems calculated for maximum ease of assimilation. Overall I doubt that the film challenges us enough to realize its enormous potential, or to rank with Kunuk’s film in the ultimate pantheon. 

Knocked Up

Grabbing on to that dawn-of-history bawdy dialogue and shooting forward to the modern day, we arrive at Judd Apatow’s hit comedy Knocked Up. The film has definitely caught a wave, with a big respectful profile of the director in the New York Times magazine, and enthusiastic reviews all over. The intrigue, perhaps, is summed up in the NYT’s observation that Apatow’s films “offer up the kind of conservative morals the Family Research Council might embrace – if the humour weren’t so filthy.”

Knocked Up depicts a slobby, non-achieving guy (Seth Rogen) who scores a one night stand with a way-out-of-his-league woman (Katherine Heigl) – when she wakes up sober, she can’t get rid of him fast enough, Eight weeks later, she calls him up: she’s pregnant and she’s keeping it, so in some sense at least they’re stuck with each other for the long term. The only question is  - what’s that relationship going to be?

I have to say I found the film’s answer to this question distinctly unconvincing – in particular, the choices made by Heigl’s character just didn’t make any sense to me, given what we’re told about her (some of the film’s supporters acknowledge this too; maybe it helps if you view it as self-confessed former dweeb Apatow’s goofy self-aggrandizing fantasy). The movie does have some emotional bite at times, mostly from the bumpy marriage of the secondary characters played by Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd. But for the most part it’s merely an easygoing laugh machine (although Apatow’s filthy one-liners don’t have the demented excess of Kevin Smith’s), particularly at ease with the slacker male bonding thing and with the pop culture that suffuses the guys’ lives (I don’t know though how they wouldn’t have heard by now of

Rogen and Heigl are pleasant but bland actors, and the movie as a whole made me pine for the days when comedies could be popular and funny and meaningful – meaningful that is as complex, specifically meaningful creations, rather than as perfect exemplars of an inherently second-rate culture.  And yes, I’m throwing the alignment with Family Research Council morals into that pot of criticism.

Mr. Brooks

There was a time when Kevin Costner must have stood higher with that group than just about anyone – just after the homespun Field Of Dreams and the soft Dances with Wolves. The Family Research Council probably lapped up the paranoia of JFK as well. No doubt the FRC would note approvingly that Costner’s momentum snapped around the time his picture book marriage broke up, and since then his movies have been an odd, mostly second rate bunch. His two famous flops – Waterworld and (especially) The Postman might actually reward viewing again at this point, and Open Range was his best directorial effort yet, but most of the rest was forgotten as soon as it appeared. Recently he’s shown potential as a charming character actor in The Upside of Anger and Rumor Has It, and is becoming more adventurous about financing his own work.

Whatever one thinks of Costner, his twenty years of ups and downs provide a busy old-fashioned backdrop of star-image allusions for any project he takes on now. Which brings us to Mr. Brooks, in which he plays a respectable and successful businessman who also has a compulsive hunger to kill. As the film begins he’s kept it under wraps for two years, but his inner voice (embodied by William Hurt) won’t leave him alone any more. So he kills again, but the curtains aren’t drawn, and he’s spotted by a voyeuristic photographer (played oddly and not very successfully by Dane Cook). Meanwhile, his daughter is back from college, and under the sweet exterior, he’s wondering how many of his less desirable genes she might have picked up.

Demi Moore is in there too, as the investigating cop, who happens herself to be a multi-millionaire. You can probably sense the excess of all this, and since director Bruce A. Evans (returning after a fifteen year gap since directing Kuffs!) isn’t much of a stylist, the movie often feels merely glossy and mechanical. But back to where I started. Costner’s character is a genuinely evil, self-serving individual who makes a mockery of the classic American success story. The movie’s notion of taking care of family is completely perverse. The movie quotes the so-called Serenity Prayer (Serenity blah blah Courage blah blah and the Wisdom to know the difference) in utterly degraded circumstances. And given the power of star identification, even Family Research Council stalwarts may find themselves rooting for the serial killer. None of this makes Mr. Brooks into a work of art, but it sure is interesting, in that uniquely Hollywood kind of way. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Filming Toronto

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2004)

For the last week, the restaurant next to my building, passing as a Brooklyn bistro, was a location for a film called The Perfect Man. The film reportedly stars Hillary Duff, Heather Locklear and Chris Noth, at least some of who must presumably from time to time have been part of that huge crowd milling beneath our balcony. But I didn’t see any of them, didn’t look. However, the week before, when my wife and I were walking the dog one morning down toward the Skydome, we passed Laurence Fishburne. On previous dog walks, I’ve spotted Sylvester Stallone, Christian Slater and Margot Kidder. At other times we’ve walked by Sidney Poitier and Eric Stoltz. The number of films or TV shows in which I could point out some part of our neighborhood far exceeds what I can remember.

Screen Presence

There was a time when I would have thought all this tremendously exciting, but it’s long gone. My parents visited from Wales recently and virtually every day they’d tell us how they’d seen filming going on in this place or that. We couldn’t even fake mild interest. In an age of excessive celebrity-worship, I think this is a healthy thing. And it’s all the easier to sustain because, for all the activity, it doesn’t feel as if Toronto has much of a screen presence. I’ve seen our neighborhood represent New York, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, and various futuristic locales, but not very often represent Toronto itself. Somehow that makes it easier to ignore the whole thing, as though it were all a perpetual mirage projected from a far-off place.

It could be a little undermining to one’s ego, living in a city whose frequent fate is to serve as a facade, like an endlessly renewing badge of second-rateness. If the city itself is so unable to assert its identity, one might ask, why should any of us, its inhabitants, be any more distinguishable? I’ve always hoped that Toronto could find its own Woody Allen, or Francois Truffaut, or at least its own Paul Mazursky – someone who would treat the city with ease and panache and make it, at least among film buffs, a place that rings with emotional music. We haven’t come very close to that, although the recent Love Sex and Eating the Bones was a good step in the right direction by Sudz Sutherland. (If any generous producers are reading this, remember that Truffaut started as a critic, and give me a call)

The latest movie in which Toronto plays itself is Jacob Tierney’s Twist, a downbeat drama about male hustlers, with a plot loosely modeled on Oliver Twist. The focus in this version is on the Artful Dodger character, played by Nick Stahl, who lives in a crappy one-step-above-slavery arrangement overseen by Fagin, who in turn reports to the unseen Bill, whose mistreated girl Nancy runs the nearby diner where the characters hang out. Oliver is an innocent new runaway, pulled into the gang by Dodge.


“This city can really f*** you up,” says Stahl early on. The line took me by surprise. I mean, no doubt it’s true, but – at the very most - it’s no more true of my personal Toronto than it might be of anywhere else. But the Toronto of Twist is a depressing place indeed; a concrete desert of bleak streets, meagre finances and squalid pleasures where the only people out there are either johns or assailants. Time and time again, the film catches the downtown core, with the CN Tower prominent, in the back of the frame, but the characters never get close to it (in one scene, Oliver visits a more upscale neighborhood, but he’s quickly rebuffed). On the most basic level, this is a city that’s denied them. But then the characters’ prospects are so perilous that their motivation seems to be purely to find an equilibrium that holds together, however shakily, and then stick to it. Stahl tells Oliver in one scene how his life isn’t that bad compared to the alternatives, and he doesn’t seem in particular to be laying it on.

That much of Twist is interesting, but the film as a whole is a somewhat monotonous viewing experience. It’s hard to think of a film that’s so consistently drained of energy or expression, and although this succeeds impressively in suggesting the hollowing effect of their airless lifestyles, the point is made fairly early on. Apart from evoking in a general way the persistence of juvenile exploitation, the parallel with Dickens doesn’t add much either. Still, the film’s city of decrepit muffin stores and diners and warehouses is a compelling landscape, precisely because it’s so utterly uncompelling. It’s both recognizable as Toronto, and as nowhere worth naming.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Talking of disaffected youth, Harry Potter seems downright surly in the opening scenes of the new film, and his mood brightens only slightly from there on. Much has been made of how director Alfonso Cuaron gave this third entry in the Potter series a richer, more emotionally coherent air, and it’s all true. Compared to previous director Chris Columbus, Cuaron has a much better eye and sense of location, and his film’s engagement with the actors exceeds anything Columbus attained.

It struck me in the second film that Potter doesn’t actually do that much – he’s substantially a slave to events, weighed down by his wrenching past and by the endless threats and dangers that seem to mark his every day. In Prisoner of Azkaban, now that he’s clearly a teenager, this all seems like a witty expression of post-pubescent angst, and I couldn’t help thinking that the way the plot repeats much of itself, via a time traveling device, seems to reinforce the sense of adolescent ennui. (As for the actual plot – it seemed odd and borderline-incoherent to me, but I’m told it’s much easier to follow if you’re in the 90% of the audience that’s read the book already).

While actors like Gary Oldman and David Thewlis, and Emma Watson as Hermione, seem to be ploughing a new and grimmer vein, others like Emma Thompson and Rupert Grint as Ron (who doesn’t seem to be maturing into much of an actor) are stuck in a more gimmicky vein, and Daniel Radcliffe as Harry is little more than a cipher. I enjoyed the first movie in the series more than I ever thought possible, and liked in particular how it captured the young boy’s discovery at confronting a cavalcade of wonders. The second was more of the same, which meant it amounted to significantly less. With the actors rapidly aging, Prisoner of Azkaban represents necessary surgery. If the next few films progress at the same pace, and Harry’s mood continues to darken, the sixth or seventh installment may be closer in tone to Twist than to Sorceror’s Stone. Then we’ll be dealing with something interesting, especially if they film it in Toronto.