Sunday, December 20, 2015

Spousal care

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2002)

The protagonist in the new film My Wife is an Actress is a sports journalist who has the good luck to be married to a beautiful and famous actress, and the bad luck to be driven half-crazy by it. They can’t walk a block without being interrupted by autograph hunters, and he’s increasingly bothered that she kisses other men and appears in the nude. All of which seems like a plausible set of concerns, no doubt one of the many reasons for the famously high mortality of celebrity marriages. But there’s a twist to My Wife is an Actress – the couple (called Yvan and Charlotte) are played by Yvan Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who are married in real life, and Attal also wrote and directed this film. Which seems to mean there must be some autobiographical background to this. And yet when Gainsbourg is naked in this film, it’s at Attal’s own behest.

My Wife is an Actress
I could fill an article just listing filmmakers who trained the camera on their wives or lovers. Some of them, like John Derek parading his wife Bo in Bolero and Tarzan the Ape Man, seemed at least in part to be massaging their own egos. But there are many examples where the director’s love of cinema intertwines with his (I can’t think at present of any instances involving a female director) love for a woman, creating something distinctly personal: Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. I remember a critic who wrote how Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry was filmed with a special glow that only occurs when a director is falling in love with an actress, as Richard Brooks was at the time. I could never figure out what that actually meant – how there was that direct a relationship between Brooks’ state of mind and the technicalities of lighting, focus, etc., but it’s a beguiling concept.

Unfortunately, My Wife is an Actress has little to add to this history. Attal plays the film for easy, soft-centered comedy. A weird subplot, in which is Jewish sister argues with her goy husband about whether to circumcise their unborn son, suggests distinctly that he views himself as a sort of French Woody Allen. Also Allen-style, he casts a celebrity in his movie: Terence Stamp, who plays the star of Gainsbourg’s latest movie. Stamp is very good, but the film holds him at arm’s length, as though the real Attal were as leery of him as his character is. The film opens with a series of photos of famous screen sirens, as though intending to place itself in the tradition I mentioned, but exhibits little substantive interest in cinema, except for a rather incongruous scene where the crew strips naked, to help Gainsbourg over her misgivings. Actually, the only character in that scene that isn’t nude is Attal himself, revealing as little of himself physically as he does emotionally.

Swept Away
Someone else whose wife is an actress, British director Guy Ritchie, also directs her in a new film. She is Madonna, who in her latest incarnation lives in London, reportedly speaks in a faux British accent, and likes to be called Mrs. Ritchie. The new film is Swept Away, a remake of Lina Wertmuller’s 1974 Italian film about a rich bitch cast away on an island with a rough-edged sailor. On board the ship she abused and belittled him, but now he has the upper hand: he slaps her around, generally treats her like a dog. She rapidly falls in love with him.

I can no longer remember anything about the Wertmuller film, but I’m certain it was a little more assured than the Ritchie version. The opening scenes of the new film are particularly bad, with Madonna very ill at ease in her brittleness. Later on, it becomes mainly bland. Still, I have some sympathy with Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe, who called it “a curiously affecting document of a director trying to show the world why he loves his wife – not the changeling pop star, but the actress.” Despite the layers of misogyny and brutality (which are somewhat soft-pedaled here), the film is basically about a lost woman who finds fulfilment where she least expects it, and Ritchie seems in tune with Madonna’s softer side (it would be rather surprising, of course, if he wasn’t).

I certainly didn’t find Swept Away as laughable as many critics did. I think it misses most of its opportunities though. Given the inherent eroticism of the premise, the film is definitely too decorous – presumably a downside in this case of a director watching over his wife. And you wonder what drew Madonna to this material in the first place. Such a tale of role-reversals and recast lives should have struck a chord with a performer who’s made herself over so many times, and the film should surely have been able to find a way to draw more effectively on that history. As it is, Madonna seems “herself” only in a misplaced fantasy sequence where she performs “Come on-a my house” in front of a big band.

Punch-Drunk Love
The current movie that best delivers what you’d expect from having an astute spouse behind the camera is Punch-Drunk Love, which doesn’t actually fall into that category of movies. It’s just that director Paul Thomas Anderson executes a weirdly narrow ambition, one that only a lover would normally concoct – to reveal the subtleties and complexities that underlie Adam Sandler’s screen persona. He does it brilliantly, but I do wonder how highly one can really value such an esoteric exercise.

The film takes Sandler’s familiar nasally goofiness, and its short-fused underbelly, and as if by applying some chemical agent disentangles and clarifies them. Sandler has never seemed so intelligent, so sweet, or so dangerous. The film shows how great love dwells disturbingly close to great anger; how non-conformity from another angle resembles madness. Anderson has come up with a deliberately slight story that perfectly facilitates his central project, with Emily Watson nicely playing his new love. The film assiduously avoids the familiar – perhaps too assiduously. At various times I tired of the music score, the locations, the widescreen framing, and in general of the whimsy. Still, it’s hard not to admire a movie that at various times reminds you of Robert Altman, Jerry Lewis, Jacques Tati, Blake Edwards, Quentin Tarantino and others, while always seeming distinctly itself.

It’s unclear whether this is a new start for the much-derided Sandler, or whether the film will stand as an aberration. His performance in the film doesn’t seem to me like great acting, but rather as a great piece of engineering on Anderson’s part. No future director will ever make the same effort for Sandler, unless he marries one.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Seven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2002)

This is the seventh and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

Femme Fatale (Brian De Palma)
De Palma’s closing gala feels like a self-parody even by his standards, although with him it’s hard to know whether that’s an insult or a compliment (I mean it as the former). Starting with an intricately choreographed jewel heist at the Cannes festival, it jumps forward seven years as one of the perpetrators (Rebecca Romjim-Stamos) finds her past closing in on her; Antonio Banderas is a photographer who gets caught in the web. The film must have less dialogue than almost any Hollywood work since Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie – it’s pure design. In something like The Untouchables and Carlito’s Way, you accept De Palma’s set pieces as a complement to the film’s central thrust, but in Femme Fatale there is no thrust. You register split screens, and camera angles, and references to Vertigo, and clever juxtapositions and logistical daredevilry, but it amounts to nothing. Towards the end, the plot twists become particularly dumb, but I’ll at least give the movie credit for a striking finale. As with anything else, you start from your own aesthetic ground rules in judging cinema, and you can certainly imagine a set of such rules under which De Palma’s fetishization of style would render him the best director in the business. Trouble is, I think the last person to hold that opinion died around the time of Blow Out.

Le Fils (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
The Dardennes’ latest documentary-style film belongs in the Howard Hawks tradition of men expressing themselves through their work, although there’s nothing Hawksian – nothing at all Hollywoodian – about the Dardennes’ minimalist approach. Olivier Gourmet won best actor at Cannes for a role that’s famously observed in large part from behind the back of his head – he’s a carpenter and instructor of delinquents who takes into his class the juvenile killer of his own young son, five years earlier. There’s some suspense attached to the question of what he’ll do with this knowledge, but the film doesn’t play that up. Even compared to the Dardennes’ previous films La Promesse and Rosetta, this is an extremely low-key work, the larger part of which consists of Gourmet and his charges handling wood. It finds its way to a note of renewal; le fils refers primarily to the dead son, but the killer (not knowing his teacher’s identity) also asks Gourmet to be his guardian, and the man’s morbid fascination with the kid expresses itself in a way that overlaps with paternalism. The title could also allude to Gourmet himself as a disciple of his own methodology and minimalism. I found the film very interesting, but it’s too narrow and circumscribed to be considered a major work.

Sex is Comedy (Catherine Breillat)
Breillat’s last film A ma soeur (Fat Girl) was banned in Ontario because of an extended sex scene involving a teenage girl. Her latest is built around the filming of that scene, with Anne Parillaud playing a proxy for Breillat herself and actress Roxane Mesquida repeating her role. The movie illustrates the tensions and mixed motivations that underlie the portrayal of desire in cinema; the director’s rapport with the male actor in particular veers across the spectrum from near-seduction to open hostility (but then, we’re told “antagonism is a tonic for desire.”) It’s just a job of course (he refers several times to being well paid for it) but the demands it makes verge on cruelty, even if you momentarily think yourself their master (she says actors frequently accept a part for the nude scenes, but then fear always sets in). The final scene sums up the film – the actress seems genuinely traumatized through identification with her character and the direct demands that have been made on her, but this suddenly melts into sheer satisfaction at a job well done: pragmatism and joy virtually coexist with self-loathing. Prior to that, viewers may get some easy laughs from the actor’s prosthetic penis, and the film is certainly one of Breillat’s lighter works, but it’s as troubling as it is funny.

Festival Summary
There are a million festival stories in the big city, and here’s mine. Objectively, I was probably too busy to take time off this year, but hey – it’s the film festival! So I decided I’d stick to a disciplined routine of three movies a day, no more no less, and then go into the office at least once a day. As it was, I generally ended up going in twice a day – zooming in for an hour, hurling through messages and five-minute meetings, then zooming out – or else catching up late at night. On one occasion I came in at 5 am, before the movies started, and passed a presumably festival-related party still in full swing at the Rosewater supper club.

My work objective worked – I didn’t fall behind on anything. And I saw those three movies a day – no more, no less (if you noticed I’ve written more than thirty reviews of film festival movies across these seven articles, it’s because I cheated by adding in a few that I saw afterwards, in commercial release). Not surprisingly, I tired myself out to a possibly hazardous extent, and dozed off for a few minutes during a dozen or more movies (usually about twenty minutes in, regardless of their quality). Does this sound like a recipe for misery? If so, the cake didn’t rise: it was probably my best festival ever.

I stayed pretty close to my basic strategy – brand name directors, not necessarily avoiding movies that might open later, but privileging those that likely wouldn’t, adding in some choices based on strong advance reviews, and a few wildcards based purely on the time slot. I only saw a few American films, and they were mostly disappointments (In America, Femme Fatale, Auto Focus). My favourite was Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls, a movie that hasn’t received the attention it deserved (I didn’t see the People’s Choice winner, Whale Music). Others in the top flight include Talk to her, Lilya 4-Ever and 9/11/01. Lost in La Mancha, for a movie fan, was one of the festival’s most straightforward delights. Many others had numerous points of excellence. If I were doing it all over again, I’d probably have avoided La derniere lettre and My Mother’s Smile, but that’s about it. I especially regretted not fitting in Divine Intervention and Chihwaseon, and it took substantial discipline to wait for the commercial release on a few others (particularly Far From Heaven).

Well, bring on 2003!

Monday, December 7, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2002)

This is the sixth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

Dolls (Takeshi Kitano)
Kitano’s stone-faced action films have always incorporated a deep vein of lyricism, if not sentimentality (see especially Kikujiro), although his last film Brother was something of a regression to deadpan violence. Dolls takes Kitano to an astonishing new level – it’s unabashedly romantic. The film loosely intertwines three stories. A man abandons his fiancée and she ends up brain-damaged after a suicide attempt – he returns to her and they end up wandering the country, permanently attached by a rope tied around their waists. An aging gangster rediscovers the love he left behind long ago. A pop star’s career is ended by accident: a devoted fan blinds himself and then forges a relationship with her. Even that brief synopsis indicates the film has a perverse streak, but that’s merely seasoning to a banquet of color and design and balletic juxtaposition. The film has one memorable image and idea after another, often tossed away with the confidence of a real master. The theme is the fragility of human interaction, how the heart jerks us around like puppets; not such a revelation in itself, but there’s never been a treatment of it quite like this one. Possibly the best film I saw at the festival – certainly the one I have the most immediate interest in seeing again.

(NB December 2015 update – I never did see Dolls again, and can’t imagine it would be as striking now as I thought it was then, but it would be nice to be wrong about that)

Moonlight Mile (Brad Silberling)
Silberling’s gala presentation has already opened commercially, to a lukewarm reception. It’s hard to imagine anyone having strong feelings either way about this movie – it attempts to touch bases with all available emotions, but ends up occupying some neutral zone where they all cross each other out. The film follows the parents of a young woman shot dead in a random shooting, and her fiancée who’s living with them, and it’s apparently based on a real incident from Silberling’s life. The movie is distinctive enough that you accept it as the record of a personal response to a personal tragedy, but this is something you note academically, not emotionally. It has a dream cast – Dustin Hoffman, Susan Sarandon, Holly Hunter, all of whom seem to be doing their own thing, and Jake Gyllenhaal as the fiancée; he’s a sweet enough but overly mannered centre. The film is visually quite delicate – I registered any number of pleasing compositions, but all in isolation, like photographs from an album.

Shadow Kill (Adoor Gopalakrishnan)
This is the first film I’ve seen by Gopalakrishnan – actually I’d never heard of him before, although the Festival slotted this one into its “Masters” category. The picture doesn’t quite confirm him as a master; it has the feeling of a relative diversion from someone capable of much more ambitious work. It follows an aging executioner who must do his duty even though the burden of the task has almost eaten away his soul, and he’s become a drunk. Halfway through the film, on the eve of an execution, a soldier starts to tell the story of a young girl’s rape and murder, and we’re taken in another direction. The film has a stark, divorced, slightly dreamlike feel, with intensely rich colours, and it has an undercurrent of acute pain; it feels torn from a volcanic imagination kept here within unnatural constraints. The ending feels hurried, and I think more people walked out on this movie than just about any other I attended during the week. Still, Gopalakrishnan’s work is clearly worth seeking out further.

La derniere letter (Frederick Wiseman)
Certainly the simplest film I saw at the festival in terms of its raw ingredients, and running just one hour, this is legendary documentarian Wiseman’s first “dramatic” film. It’s a monologue performed by actress Catherine Samie, taking the form of a last letter to her son from a Russian-Jewish woman trapped in the ghetto and expecting to die at the hands of the Germans. She performs on a blank stage, with no props, only shadows – sometimes multiple shadows that eerily evoke her experiences reflected through multitudes of others (at times, this evokes the expressiveness of something like Dreyer’s silent films). Wiseman does an able job of varying the film’s visual impact, although the array of angles and fades sometimes seemed to me rather arbitrary (such as the moment when she’s describing the massacre in the ghetto and her hands seem to be showing rabbit shadows). For all its inherent power and evocative scope, the text itself seems to me unexceptional, and Samie’s performance is a standard-issue theatrical display. Still, no one could be completely unmoved by the film, or by her final exhortation to her son.

8 Women (Francois Ozon)
Ozon is widely regarded as the most promising of young French directors, although his diverse body of work so far includes a disproportionate amount of overdone trivia. 8 Women is that too, but here it evokes a blissfully, indulged kid who shows off his surplus of toys, wearing a huge grin: how irritated can you be at him? With a dream cast of French actresses (including Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Beart), it’s a murder mystery confined to a single country-house set: Deneuve’s husband has been killed and everyone (daughter, mother in law, maid etc.) has at least one motive. Revelations fly in all directions – it’s as if none of them had talked for a day before this. The piling-up of taboos causes hardly a dent in the glamour – actually it serves as a liberation to several of the characters. It’s a complete contrivance of course, but Ozon’s delight is infectious. The eight musical interludes, one for each actress, cap this off as the kind of music they just don’t make anymore (and insofar as it contains same-sex kisses, they never did).

Russian Ark (Alexandr Sokurov)
Sokurov’s film consists of a single 96-minute shot. There are other long-take films – Andy Warhol kept the camera going five times as long on the Empire State building; Mike Figgis in Time Code did it simultaneously with four separate cameras – but I doubt it’s ever been attempted on a project of such complexity. The camera travels through 200 years of cultural Russian history – through theatres, art galleries, grand balls, a meal at the table of the last Tzar – tied together by a European diplomat who wanders through it all. The choice of a European guide is significant, for the film evidences some regret – however knowing – for the loss of a certain grand sense of what it was to be Russian, of a certain cultural sensibility. The film indeed resembles an “ark,” a store of fragments of imperiled memory. At the end the camera travels out through a window to stare at the sea, and the narrator says “We are destined to sail forever…to live forever,” but this may be as much wish as prediction. Sokurov’s films can be heavy-going, and his technical feat here makes demands on the viewer – you realize how easy it is to let yourself be guided by traditional montage. If a conventional film is a journey, Russian Ark is a privilege.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Five

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2002)

This is the fifth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

9-11-01 (Amos Gitai, Youssef Chahine, Sean Penn, Mira Nair, Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, Shohei Imamura, Danis Tanovic, Idrissa Ouedraogo, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Samira Makhmalbaf)
Eleven short films by eleven directors from eleven countries, taking vastly different approaches toward the basic mandate of commemorating/commenting on September 11. Under the circumstances, it’s remarkable how subtly balanced it feels as a whole (compare to the other anthology package at this year’s festival, Ten Years Older: the Cello, in which the broad subject of “reflections on time” failed to inspire most of the participants to anything worthwhile). Penn and Lelouch both provide intimate stories of loss taking place in the shadows of the twin towers – Penn’s is especially lyrical and surprising. Tanovic, Gitai, Loach and Chahine contrast September 11 to other atrocities. Chahine’s piece, weaving in fantasy elements and evoking past American atrocities, is a particular reason why the project’s been accused of anti-Americanism; his segment is unfortunately the clumsiest of the bunch. Loach much more cogently contrasts 9-11-01 with 9-11-73, on which the Chilean army (with American backing) rose against the elected Allende government. Inarritu immerses himself in the event itself, generating a shocking aural collage against a mostly black screen. Makhmalbaf and Ouedraogo see the event through the eyes of children in Iran and Burkina Faso respectively – Ouedraogo’s piece, about five boys who think they’ve spotted Osama bin Laden, is especially engaging. Nair’s story of a woman whose missing son was wrongly accused of being a terrorist is one of the less subtle contributions. The movie ends with a typically weird story from Imamura, set in Japan after Hiroshima and apparently relevant to September 11 only in the very general sense that it points out the horror of war. All in all, the film places 9-11 in context without diminishing it; only the most supremely self-righteous could seriously object.

The Eye (the Pang Brothers)
Screening as part of the festival’s Midnight Madness section, this horror chiller almost blows all its energy on a great opening tease in which the film seems to be burning in the projector (“Bummer,” said the woman behind me). A young blind woman receives a cornea transplant, but she now sees not just people from this world, but also from the next. The opening aside, the film is best when establishing the initial creepy mood (Kiyoshi Kurosawa may have been an influence for some of this, but The Eye is a more calculated, straightforward entertainment than his allusive genre work). The more it gets into plot mechanics, the more it loses its initial grip, although it regroups for a good finale. Other strong elements include a sympathetic heroine, a pounding music score, and general technical finesse. I never see more than one or two of the Midnight Madness selections every year, and this is par for the course – better than average genre fare, but not really deserving of the sobriquet “madness,” and not likely to keep a weary festival-goer awake past midnight. Fortunately for me, I saw it at 11 am.

Ken Park (Larry Clark & Ed Lachman)
Larry Clark seems to regard himself as the prophet of some dismal truth about teenage suburban America – they have sex, they take drugs, they’re alienated and screwed-up to the point that they could kill you as easily as look at you. And by the way, the parents are no better. Ken Park (the title refers to a character who shoots himself in the head at the start) doesn’t even have as much plot as Kids or Bully – it’s perhaps the ultimate undiluted Clark experience. Ironic then that he has a co-director here for the first time, but maybe noted cinematographer Lachman mainly contributed to the film looking more proficient than Clark’s previous work. A plot summary would sound like no more than a list of sleazy fantasies. The most interesting aspect of this is in how the adults are deeply unnerved/threatened by/envious of the kids’ sexuality and set out to appropriate it for themselves, thus precipitating the very consequences that they claim to fear. If they left the kids alone, everything would work itself out. The film then does have some thematic merit, and some real sadness. But Clack ups the ante of explicitness with every movie he makes, and it’s awfully hard to get past that surface.

L’homme du train (Patrice Leconte)
A charming anecdote about an aging bank robber who comes to a small town to pull off a job and crosses paths with a retired poetry teacher living a faded bourgeois life (“except for needlework,” he says, “I have all the skills of an early 20th century woman.”) They develop a mutual envy and each starts to move in the other’s direction: the gangster starts wearing slippers, reading poetry and smoking a pipe; the other fantasizes about being a tough guy, and gets a new haircut (“somewhere between ‘just out of jail’ and ‘world class soccer player’”). The amazingly facile Leconte keeps generating these beautifully constructed, nicely shaded curios at the rate of one a year (they include Ridicule and The Widow of St. Pierre). Like Louis Malle, he thinks his way picture by picture, and will never make it into the pantheon of auteurs, but he’s the best there is nowadays at the archetypal well-made foreign film. This one has an effective steely gray texture, lots of good one-liners, and ideal performances from Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday. On the debit side, it’s overly schematic, and sentimental too in the end.

My Mother’s Smile (Marco Bellocchio)
Veteran director Bellocchio disappoints with this turgid melodrama of an artist whose dead mother (murdered by his brother) is under consideration by the Vatican for canonization. A non-believer, he’s appalled at the prospect – far from venerating his mother, he remembers her as a “stupid woman” with an “indifferent, lethal” smile (rather than beatific, as others claim). However, his relatives – regarding the prospect of a saint in the family as a good business proposition and useful spiritual “insurance” – connive and lie to get it done. Meanwhile, he’s separated from his wife, helping bring up his young son, and maybe falling in love with the boy’s religion teacher. The film stars Sergio Castellitto, magnetic star of Va Savoir and Mostly Martha, lacking his usual twinkle here.  The film gets in some good potshots at the saint-making industry, such as the mass production of stupid photographs purporting to depict the mother’s martyrdom, and it’s darkly handsome, but Bellocchio applies a heavy hand from start to finish, and the story never ignites.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Four

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2002)

This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

Kedma (Amos Gitai)
Gitai’s latest exploration of Israeli history is much more successful than last year’s Eden, although that’s largely a result of visceral pleasures: his one-take approach to battle scenes, for example, is almost unmatched (and I include polished films like Saving Private Ryan). Actually starting with a virtuoso single take, aboard a ship bringing a group of refugees to Israel, the film follows some of the group as they evade British soldiers and then travel toward a kibbutz, encountering Arab resistance on the way. The film is extremely similar in tone and style to Gitai’s earlier work Kippur: well-staged action alternates with debate and soul-searching, and the dialogue can seem very forced at times. In general though, Kedma effectively sets out the contradictions at the heart of modern Israel, never more so than in an anguished closing monologue (“I think that Israel isn’t a Jewish country anymore”) on how Jews are pushed to violence (Jewish history is “a history imposed by goyim”). And the film inevitably gains power from its foreshadowing of current conflicts. “We’ll remain here in spite of you,” shouts an old Arab at the Jews who stole his donkey in the course of their journey, “like a wall…we’ll be hungry, we’ll be in rags. But we’ll defy you.”

In America (Jim Sheridan)
An Irish couple and their two daughters settle illegally in New York (fortunate enough to find a large vacant apartment on their first day). They live on a shoestring, always haunted by the recent accidental death of their young son. For all of their troubles, New York remains a largely mystical atmosphere, especially with the mysteriously charismatic black painter living downstairs, and there are suggestions of celestial forces weaving through their lives (aren’t there always?) The print shown at the festival qualifies “In America” as a working title – maybe the final title should be “In Dreams,” because this sentimental romanticizing of poverty doesn’t seem to have much to do with real life as I’ve ever seen it. Ambling along as these anecdotal kinds of films always do, it has the occasional good scene, but the grander ambitions fall flat. Key among these is a concept of the father as closed-off and distant, so unable to engage with life that at one point his daughter accuses him of being an impostor; but it doesn’t come across, maybe because actor Paddy Considine seems even more stilted than the character he’s playing. It adds up to a vastly derivative project, teetering under the layers of uplifting mysticism that Sheridan has it carry.

Secretary (Steven Shainberg)
Shainberg’s debut film, about the sado-masochistic relationship between a bottled-up lawyer and the disturbed young woman who comes to work for him, could be seen merely as a catalogue of kinky ideas, and perhaps can’t be seen as much more than that. So the value judgment all depends how you respond to the movie’s extremely accommodating attitude. Personally, I liked it nearly all the way along, with doubts really only arising over the ending, which casts the final state of the relationship in rather conventional terms. In particular, the final shot, in which she stares straight into the camera, daring us to judge her, is too strenuous a statement of feminist credentials. That’s nearly the only unsatisfying shot of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who seems to have figured out every nuance of her character. James Spader initially seems to be playing his part more conventionally and superficially, but this is but one of many ways in which the film’s deftness might initially be underrated. Some of the weirdest (which I guess equals the best) ideas are almost thrown away, which must be a sign of confidence. The film has already opened commercially since the festival, and it’s taken some knocks for its exploitation aspects; your enjoyment of the movie should be pretty closely correlated with your tolerance for the premise.

Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
Miyazaki’s feature-length animated film has also opened commercially since the festival (where it played as Miyazaki’s Spirited Away). It’s the biggest hit of all time in Japan, and in the recent Sight and Sound poll it received three votes as one of the best ten films of all time. I’m no anime connoisseur, and this film’s veins of cuteness, occasional visual flatness, and general weirdness could confirm one’s prejudices – if you ignored the genuinely unique, seemingly otherworldly imagination on display here. It’s about a young girl who wanders with her parents onto what they think is an abandoned theme park – the parents find and eat some food that changes them into pigs, and she finds herself working in a bathhouse for the spiritual world. Miyazaki has worked out every detail of the environment: the film has eye-popping spirits, and explanations of the water-pumping system; boys that turn into flying dragons, and railway systems that aren’t what they used to be. This has its serious undertones – the festival brochure cites “the strength and insight of innocence…the disintegration of religious faith and other forms of spirituality.” But I question whether the film’s mysticism and theme of belief in oneself are inherently that profound. The magic is in Miyazaki’s almost disturbingly uncategorizable creativity, and a visual style that perfectly expresses both the simplicity and complexity of his sensibility. I enjoyed Spirited Away as much as an animated film I’ve ever seen.

The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismaki)
Kaurismaki’s latest film initially resembles a piece of baroque science fiction – a man gets beaten up, is declared dead, comes back to life but without any memory of who he is, and establishes a meagre living for himself, including a mild romance with a Salvation Army worker. As he becomes more secure in his new identity, the film becomes looser and more discursive – and, for me, distinctly less interesting. Much of the second half consists of musical performances by a Salvation Army band that he coaxes onto a more popular style – they’re nice enough songs, but it’s indicative of a somewhat flabby movie. One of the picture’s abiding pleasures is its cinematography – especially in the early stretches, containing some of the most vivid colour compositions since The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Sadly, the film seems to tone this down as it progresses, perhaps as another reflection of his escalating normalization. And although the Festival brochure promised “one of the great performances by a dog on screen,” the dog too fades away as the movie goes on. The film starts off as one of Kaurismaki’s most muscular and striking works and ends up seeming run-of-the-mill for him – it adds up to a highly watchable but disappointing effort.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2002)

This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

Ten Minutes Older: the Cello (Bernardo Bertolucci, Claire Denis, Mike Figgis, Jean-Luc Godard, Jiri Menzel, Michael Radford, Volker Schlondorff, Istvan Szabo)
A film consisting of eight short segments by eight famous directors. Like most previous exercises along these lines, it’s a disappointment, evidencing little inherent reason for existing. The segments all deal in some way with the “phenomenon of time,” but this vague mandate isn’t enough to lend the project much coherence. The best are probably Bertolucci’s – an elegant glide through episodes in the life of an immigrant – and Godard’s: working in the kind of collage-form he’s used on many other occasions, he expands the scope and emotional resonance of his segment beyond what the others achieve. Radford comes in a surprising third, using an old-hat science fiction premise but at least investing his sequence with good design and mild panache. As for the rest: Figgis uses the same four-screen/one-take technique he used in Time Code – nothing new ensues. Menzel juxtaposes scenes from the life of a Czech actor, achieving only mild poignancy (although I note that this sequence made the woman beside me cry). Szabo’s is a well-handled but basically mediocre one-take melodrama about how quickly a life falls apart. Denis’ segment is all talk. Schlondorff’s juxtaposes a banal voice-over with a banal series of images – the only distinction being that the sound and image are banal in quite different ways. For all its philosophizing, the film’s main contribution to the study of time is to raise the question of how such a film can seem to last so much longer than it actually does.

Julie Walking Home (Agnieszka Holland)
Holland’s film is about the fragility of both the secular and the spiritual; about how slight shifts in the equilibrium cause calamitous shocks. It’s not really that distinctive a theme, especially when presented in what is by now her familiarly overwrought style (see for example her last film The Third Miracle). Miranda Otto and William Fichtner are common-law spouses whose happiness is torn apart by his one night stand – then their son is diagnosed with cancer. She takes him to Poland in search of a famous faith healer who falls in love with her. Much about the picture – the mix of accents, locations, tone and ideas – has the feel of something pulled together to satisfy a committee of competing interests, although the competition may all dwell within Holland’s own sensibility. Her film has excellent moments (Otto is especially striking, almost frightening, in her seductress mode) but it becomes increasingly clear that the film has nowhere in particular to go. Like the birds to which it returns as a motif, it merely circles, before choosing a resting point that may be either arbitrary or deliberate (a distinction that may matter to the bird, but not to the onlooker).

Lilja 4-Ever (Lukas Moodysson)
Swedish prodigy Moodysson show here that he can work in a much darker register than his first two films, Show me Love and Together. The film tracks a miserable three months in the life of a 16-year-old Russian girl, who’s left alone when her mother skips with her boyfriend to the States. With no source of income, she slides easily into prostitution: the film is especially strong on depicting the near-inevitability of this fate for women in dire circumstances. When she finally meets an apparently nice guy who says he’ll find her a job in Sweden, he turns out to be a procurer of child whores. It’s gloomy subject matter, with almost every scene yielding some new tragedy or squalor. The young actress Oksana Akinshina is disconcertingly unemotive through most of it. But the film is ceaselessly perceptive and sensitive, without ever becoming sentimental, not even when it depicts her visions of the over-dosed friend she left behind, now sporting angels’ wings. The film was one of my favourites of the festival – not as artistically imposing as Talk to her or Dolls, but bringing a strong individual voice to a work of diligent anthropology.

Marie Jo and Her Two Loves (Robert Guediguian)
Every year, the festival selects one director for its retrospective spotlight feature. Guediguian, this year’s choice, sets all his films (the best known is Marius and Jeanette) in working-class Marseilles, and generally works with the same actors – his work thrives on intimate recognition. His latest is no exception. It’s the story of a woman simultaneously in love with her husband and another, finding that the weight of her love carries an inverse correlation to that of her happiness. “I only feel at peace when I make love,” she says, “otherwise I suffer.” The movie portrays this state adeptly, and is equally good at depicting the loneliness of being the man she’s not currently with. Guediguian paces things deliberately (some would certainly say slowly), spending much time on the details of their jobs and on inconsequential moments. He achieves the authenticity for which he aims, but can’t dispel a sense of familiarity (whether measured against his own previous work or that of others who’ve explored this territory). Towards the end, Marie Jo’s daughter erupts at her parents in idealistic disgust, and you realize how muted the film has generally seemed prior to that point. And while it seems clear that the director might profit from expanding his range, the swirling tragedy of this film’s final image isn’t a particularly effective step in that direction.

La ville est tranquille (Robert Guediguian)
The spotlight on Guediguian also included this film from 2000 – perhaps his most ambitious and most successful. A social epic along the lines of John Sayles or Robert Altman’s films, it weaves together some grim and often heart-rending stories of people trying to get by. A woman who works at the fish market prostitutes herself to buy drugs for her addicted daughter; a laid-off dockworker tries to make it as a cab driver but sinks into financial troubles; a black man is released from prison. Right-wing politics percolate in the background. The director’s at full strength here; intently focused on his characters, allowing us to feel the quiet desperation that mainly defines their lives (the muted quality of Marie Jo is more successful here because we understand it as a reflection of demands and pain that defy words), tracking occasional eruptions of joy and hope, of pain and despair. The film has a slight penchant for melodrama, which threatens to disrupt the verisimilitude, and the hopeful final image seems a little idealistic, but Guediguian doesn’t pretend there are easy answers for any of this, and his film as a whole seems wise and balanced.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Two

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2002)

This is the second of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

All or Nothing (Mike Leigh)
Leigh’s last film Topsy Turvy was an unexpected departure for the master of low-income British angst, and a complete success. The new film, back on familiar territory, inevitably looks like treading water by comparison. It’s loosely structured around three miserable families in a drab London housing complex – they drink or eat too much, or lose themselves in sexual role-playing, or in random anger, or superficial good spirits, or just in all-consuming inertia. Timothy Spall plays a cab driver, trapped in his own misery, avoiding all responsibility. Sensing himself on the verge of disappearing completely, he finally breaks out, resulting in a series of scenes that, if a little over-emphatic, almost rank with Leigh’s best work. That plot strand arrives at a generally happy ending, but Leigh lets the other two stories drop completely; in cinema as in life, he seems to be saying, positive outcomes are largely a matter of chance. Like every Leigh film, All or Nothing is crammed with fine moments that shine a passing spotlight on a secondary character, anchoring the film in the world beyond the frame. But it has a more muted tone than most of his work, making less overt use of comedy, and most viewers will find it less insinuating than something like Secrets and Lies.

Too Young to Die (Park Jin-Pyo)
This Korean film has a simple purpose – to celebrate the love of a man and a woman. This is out of the ordinary only because the couple are in their 70s, and they have a lot of sex. It shouldn’t be a surprise that older people can do it multiple times a week, sometimes a day (the man helpfully marks each session off on his calendar so we can follow along), but if it wasn’t a surprise the film presumably wouldn’t exist. It’s somewhere between documentary and fiction – seeming to have a script, but played by a real life couple who aren’t professional actors. Objectively, it’s a pretty voyeuristic project (the film shows the sex in some detail), but it doesn’t feel that way, mainly because the couple (especially him) are so happy to show themselves off. For the sake of balance, the picture shows a few rough patches, such as a spat about her staying out too late with her friends. But if it was ever in doubt that the movie takes a sentimental view of its subjects, then the incredibly sappy closing song would wipe it away. Almost incidentally, you notice that their living conditions are pretty meagre, and there’s the odd reminder of cultural differences (when he wants to make her a chicken dinner, he buys a live bird and slaughters it in the yard) but these observations come only intermittently, amid the calculated universal appeal.

Auto Focus (Paul Schrader)
Schrader (who made American Gigolo and one of my all-time guilty pleasures, the remake of Cat People) ought to be the ideal director to film the story of Bob Crane, the genial stay of Hogan’s Heroes who became obsessed with sex and pornography as his career declined. Auto Focus tells the story efficiently and intriguingly, but it doesn’t particularly look like a Schrader film; it doesn’t seem interested in plumbing the depths of Crane’s soul, and the echoes of Bresson that used to mark Schrader’s work are just a memory here. In a way, Schrader should be praised for his self-effacement. He certainly captures both the bounce and optimism of Crane’s rise to fame in the 60’s, married to his college sweetheart with no darker secrets than a few racy magazines hidden in the garage, and the tackiness of his decline in the 70’s. But this isn’t a chronicle of the age like Boogie Nights – it’s a rather hermetic story of one sad figure, and in telling it so straight, Schrader risks our indifference. Willem Dafoe is rather one-dimensional as the hedonist who led Crane astray, and Greg Kinnear’s performance in the lead role sums up the picture – wholly convincing as the nice guy, but generally just too convivial and straightforward to be particularly interesting. There are many good moments though – his meltdown on the set of Celebrity Cooks, hosted by Bruno Gerussi, is especially well caught.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce)
Noyce used to make provocative little Australian films, but in recent years he’s been the anonymous general behind such epics as Clear and Present Danger and Silver. This film marks a home-coming: it’s about three half-Aboriginal girls in 1931, sent 1,800 miles from their home to a special school for “half-castes.” The film makes it clear that there were many such “shadow children,” and has a chilling scene where Kenneth Branagh, as the leader of the cleansing program, explains the official philosophy on the matter. The children escape and set off to walk the vast distance home. Most of the film is devoted to their journey and how they evade the state’s efforts to catch up with them – including a veteran tracker played by David Gulpilil, who starred thirty years ago in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. The film is gripping, and evokes suitable anger at what the children endured. But maybe Noyce has become too efficient a storyteller – you feel very little of the passage of time, or the incredible distance they covered, or of their hunger or thirst. This is one of the rare films that’s actually too short – we feel short-changed on the bigger picture of Australia at the time, the visceral experience of the journey, and the story’s potentially mythic underpinnings. The evocation of Walkabout reminds you how that and other movies found real grandeur in the desert.

Waiting for Happiness (Abderrahmane Sissako)
Mauritanian director Sissako’s film is suffused in ambivalence about Africa – he celebrates its beauty and mystery, but constantly returns to images of departure and escape (or more frequently, failed attempts at departure) and thoughts of a different life. The film is loosely structured, and the exact meaning of what we’re watching isn’t always clear – the most recognizable plot strand involves a young boy serving as apprentice to an aging electrician, accompanying him from job to job. Initially the film may seem opaque, but you adjust to its rhythm. It’s crammed with gorgeous images, such as the electrician and the boy hooking up a light bulb to an outlet and then carrying it into the desert for what seems like miles. It’s a dream-like Africa, encompassing desert and city and village and the water’s edge – parameters that hold the characters in place even as their parched spirits tell them to move on. The old man remembers a friend who offered him the chance to leave; finally the friend went without him, never to be seen again. “Maybe that’s what weighs on my heart,” he says: it’s the skill at depicting this weight through images that makes Waiting for Happiness such an eloquent work.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part One

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2002)

This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

Ararat (Atom Egoyan)
Egoyan’s opening gala presentation certainly doesn’t seem like the work of a great filmmaker; it evokes instead a disgruntled academic translating his theories onto celluloid. Set in present-day Toronto, it examines the continuing spiritual and emotional impact of Turkey’s massacre of Armenians in 1915. Characters include a director (Charles Aznavour) who’s making a film on the subject, an art history professor (Arsinee Khanjian) who’s a consultant on the picture, and her troubled son. Ararat doesn’t purport to present the objective truth of what happened in 1915, and acknowledges that there are problems in the historical record; it dwells on the difficulties of sustaining memory and remembrance. That aspect of Egoyan’s film is fairly interesting, but it’s filtered through some very cumbersome emotional set-ups and bizarre artistic decisions (for example, much of the film consists of a labored dialogue between the son and an overbearing customs officer played by Christopher Plummer). The messiness isn’t without consolations, but it makes for a distinctly dutiful, visually undistinguished viewing experience. The use of the film within the film, including a gala premiere at the Elgin, seems like mere navel-gazing, but then Egoyan doesn’t exhibit much sense of the real world – you’d think from Ararat that 1915 was the number one conversation topic in our city.

Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar)
Almodovar has mastered the art of making outlandish narratives seem as natural and graceful as a dance. His new film, in which dance is actually woven prominently into the design, revolves around two men, both in love with (wait for it) women in comas. One (who, in typical Almodovar fashion, thinks of himself as being more gay than straight) sees this state as an enhancement rather than an impediment; the other is understandably more ambivalent. Events build to a shocking violation that Almodovar somehow manages to render smooth and understandable. He has the old-fashioned virtue of liking his characters – his benevolence is almost boundless, sometimes to the point of foolhardiness. But this is as beguiling a movie as he’s made (even after the clear artistic advances of Live Flesh and All About my Mother). It shifts gears and perspectives with imperceptible ease, sliding forwards and backwards in time in a way that makes most narratives of that type seem highly self-conscious. It’s poised and consistently beautiful, even if the broader insights (the title sets out the main message – the importance of communication) don’t amount to much.

10 (Abbas Kiarostami)
It’s always in question whether Western viewers appreciate the work of an Iranian director like Kiarostami too much through our own prism (reflecting our own morals, ethics, aesthetic tradition, sexual politics, received notions about Iran). This may be especially tempting with his new film 10 (not a remake, obviously, of the Blake Edwards semi-classic), which consists solely of ten one-take scenes of a divorced woman, driving in her car with various passengers. In the first scene, her young son lambasts her as a bad, stupid mother; shortly afterwards she picks up a whore who scoffs at her moralistic questions. Later on in the film, the son again criticizes her for various things, but by then she takes it much more in stride. In the later scenes she counsels a distraught woman not to depend so much on just one person, and advises another to loosen her veil (which in such a physically controlled film generates considerable visual excitement). As the film progresses, the increasing use of cross-cutting between characters seems to reflect a growing sense of security and engagement on her part. The film thus appears to be primarily an illustration of a woman’s growing sense of self-determination as she adjusts to life on her own, but I suspect it may be subtler than a single viewing can appreciate. Intriguing as 10 is, I think many Kiarostami fans may miss the broader canvases of his earlier work.

Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Luis Pepe)
In 2000, director Terry Gilliam finally rolled film on his long-cherished adaptation of Don Quixote. The project came with an unrealistic budget, inadequate rehearsal and preparation time, looming chaos, and memories of his 1989 over-budget fiasco The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (which earned him a reputation as an undisciplined enfant terrible, not overcome by subsequent relatively saner projects such as The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys). The first day saw a freak storm that instantly threw the schedule into disarray. By the end of the first week, lead actor Jean Rochefort was in the hands of his doctors with a herniated disk. The film struggled on through a sixth day before collapsing completely, sending millions of dollars and Gilliam’s dreams down the tubes. Miraculously, Fulton and Pepe had cameras rolling on the whole thing, resulting in one of the most vivid portrayals of filmmaking ever made. Gilliam starts off somewhat enamoured of his own legend (“Without a battle, maybe I don’t know exactly how to approach it”); when on the first day he asks how they’re doing for time and the response is “Bad,” Gilliam reflexively snaps back “Good.” His childish giggle when something goes well is infectious. But as disaster engulfs the project he seems overwhelmed, almost paralyzed. His Don Quixote film, from what we see of it, would probably have ended up much like Munchhausen – a treat for Gilliam fans, mainly a curio for anyone else; the fact that we’ve been denied that film, but given Lost in La Mancha instead, probably isn’t a bad trade-off.

Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach)
At the age of 66, Loach is working faster than ever, alternating missions into unfamiliar territory (Spain in Land and Freedom, Los Angeles in Bread and Roses, one of his least successful efforts) with projects on home ground (or at least Scotland, which is close enough). Sweet Sixteen doesn’t have much new about it, but it’s expertly handled; no one captures the aspirations (or profanity) of the British under-privileged as expertly as Loach. It follows a boy gravitating from selling smuggled cigarettes to upward mobility in the local drug syndicate, all before turning 16. He dreams of seeing his imprisoned mother free and clean, but sees no irony in getting her there on the backs of junkies. Actually, irony isn’t really one of Loach’s standard tools (compared say to skillful tub-thumping) although the situation provides it in abundance (“I used to watch my dad do this,” says a young pusher nostalgically, as he cuts the heroin). Loach’s biggest weakness, for me, is his propensity for gangster figures and their attendant melodrama. Still, this is a consistently gripping, moving work.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Seven current movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2002)

Last week I wrote about the difficulties of getting one’s money’s worth out of a DVD collection, given that the new movies keep on coming. Here’s more evidence: seven mini-reviews (count em!)

Happy Times
Readers may remember an article, a few years ago, in which I put together a fictional list of directors that might have won the Nobel Prize for cinema, if such a thing existed. My 1996 winner was China’s Zhang Yimou, a choice that now makes my imaginary committee look severely impulsive. Since then, Zhang has made various small-scale films that bear the limitations of trying to work within the Chinese State system, and he’s seemed increasingly sentimental. His latest marks a further regression, back to the emotional values and overall sophistication of, well, the silent era. A bachelor in his 50s sets out to get married, but instead ends up taking care of a blind girl who’s been mistreated for most of her life. Having lied about his resources and status, he creates a series of illusions to hide the truth from her. The movie’s main point of distinction is its highly contingent happy ending. It’s not that the film’s bad exactly – it’s just awfully minor and unambitious. I might not have minded it at all, if I hadn’t kept kicking myself for letting my Nobel jurists lose their heads over his earlier work.

Sunshine State
John Sayles’ cross-section of small-town Florida life seems less accomplished than earlier films of his like Limbo, Lone Star or City of Hope, which executed similarly ambitious exercises in Alaska, Texas and New Jersey respectively. Having said that, Sayles seems on this evidence to consider Florida a less accomplished place – a blandly low-input and low-return would-be paradise where sterile design destroys all sense of history, place and community. The film follows four or five main plot strands, although nothing tops the brief glimpses of a local dignitary’s compulsive suicide attempts. The film peters out more than it actually ends, but that seems like Sayles’ final comment on the state – where he sealed off his Alaskan movie Limbo with a grand metaphysical flourish, he lets his Florida movie fizzle and dissipate. Sunshine State also contains a hearty dollop of what seems pretty much like standard melodrama; it’s always been Sayles’ oddity that he insists on his integrity as an independent filmmaker, who then makes movies the greater part of which could fit quite comfortably into the mainstream.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
A bit fat box-office hit, which does as much as any bland action blockbuster to show how undemanding audiences can be. I didn’t register a single original joke or observation in this compendium of clichés and platitudes about the travails of an ethnic family (you’ve seen the same thing done with Jewish weddings, and Italian weddings, and gay weddings…) Familiar Toronto locations (subbing for Chicago) and faces make it even less convincing for local audiences. Nothing in the movie is quite right – lead actor John Corbett overdoes the laid-back charm, and lead actress and writer Nia Vardalos overdoes her initial frumpiness and thereafter underdoes whatever quality is supposed to have snared Corbett. And after plodding through the build-up to the wedding, the event itself is over almost before it’s begun. Maybe if I were Greek it would have seemed like a masterpiece of observation, although I have a Greek friend, and she sure doesn’t act that way.

The Believer
At the time of writing I haven’t actually seen the end of this film. With no more than ten minutes to go, the Varsity projector broke down and they couldn’t get it back up. Still, I saw enough to know that The Believer is a near-must see. An astonishing creation about a Jew who embraces Nazism, the film is the most articulate of the year, and one of the most subtly perverse: the character’s escalating violence and radicalism coexist with a longing to reimmerse himself in Judaism. Ryan Gosling gives a fine, fiery performance in the title role. The film is sometimes too cluttered, and events take place on such a melodramatic scale that they threaten to swamp the character, but the worst never happens (not up to the last ten minutes anyway).

It’s a hit, and some think that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan is the next Spielberg, but I found this film dreary, shallow, and unremittingly pretentious. Its central notion about faith and predestination is inherently no more than earnest in a first-year philosophy student kind of way, but Shyamalan’s genius is to set this against the backdrop of an alien invasion of Earth, thus ensuring goofiness just one notch short of Edward D. Wood. And the sillier the thing gets, the more seriously it seems to take itself. Mel Gibson’s solemnity fits right in with the prevailing gravity. As for the Spielberg comparison, I’m not among the greatest aficionados of Minority Report, but that film outclasses this one by every worthwhile criterion. By the end of this preachy, self-regarding farrago, I started to dislike Shyamalan personally.

Blood Work
Clint Eastwood’s new film, on the other hand, is a model of self-effacement. This thriller about a retired cop who investigates a woman’s murder (while carrying her donated heart in his chest) has a pretty intricate plot, but lets it unwind with so little emphasis and elaboration that you could almost miss it. This lets some potentially interesting elements go floating away, but leaves behind something most intriguing – a tersely written and shot procedural that nevertheless feels like a character piece. The trouble is that the characters are distinctly sleepy. As recent Eastwood movies go, Blood Work is more unified than Absolute Power or True Crime, although the zest of James Woods in the latter would have given the new film a welcome shot in the arm.

Another inherently odd project – a literary detective story contrasting a modern-day love story between two academics (Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow), and the object of their investigation: a 19th century romance between two poets. The film is directed by the normally acerbic Neil LaBute, and often seems like a change of pace for its own sake – it takes considerable pleasure in the eccentricity of British high-cultural circles, which seems here as deviously political as the white-collar slaying ground LaBute depicted in In the Company of Men. Perhaps appropriately, most of the film consists of elements that are interesting mainly in theory. It has its moments of grace, but never overcomes – and indeed apparently welcomes – a pervasive diffident quality.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Cinema bites

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2002)

The wonder of cinema is that it’s still a wonder to us. Virtually as long as the medium’s existed, directors have tested the limits of its storytelling conventions, but the conventions remain intact, and so the limits continue to be tested. Of course, like everything else, it’s more knowing now. For all his huge intellect, Jean-Luc Godard’s 60’s and 70’s experiments and meditations seem to carry a rush of pure puckish joy that’s missing from, say, Mike Figgis’ Time Code. One could organize quite a debating session on the proposition of whether or not cinema should be taken seriously. Maybe, to bend a movie title, we should view it as hopeless but not serious.

Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh, I mentioned the other week, works at a startling pace. In the last five years he’s released Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic (for which he won an Oscar) and Ocean’s Eleven. That’s an impressive line-up in such a short time, although it’s not easy to determine Soderbergh’s creative personality from it. He makes vivid, lively films, full of incident, attuned to their settings, and ably showcasing their actors. That may seem like superficial praise, but maybe not, for Soderbergh’s interest in surfaces may be worth just about any other director’s interest in depth.

Erin Brockovich is one of the most skillful star vehicles in memory, and looks as though everything else in it was calibrated for the sole purpose of showcasing Julia Roberts. Ocean’s Eleven had no discernible purpose other than bringing together an eclectic bunch of big name actors (the scene at the end, where the camera pans across most of the cast standing contentedly in a row looking over Vegas, seems to me to sum it up). The film clearly does not “work” as satisfying rounded entertainment, but the project has a sense of itself that almost fuels you.

His new film Full Frontal is intended as a quick, low-budget diversion from this run of success (and it precedes his big-budget science fiction film Solaris, due out in November). It has another amazing cast. Roberts plays a magazine writer carrying out an extended interview with up-and-coming actor Blair Underwood. Or rather, that’s what happens in a film within the film; they actually play actors. He’s having an affair with a frustrated executive (Catherine Keener) whose marriage to magazine journalist David Hyde-Pierce is breaking down. Keener’s sister is a massage therapist (Mary McCormack) who has an unsatisfying encounter with a film producer (David Duchovny) while pursuing a cyber-romance with a theater director (Enrico Colantoni) who’s directing a bizarre production about young Hitler starring an egotistical actor (Nicky Katt).

Attempts to connect

Soderbergh says his movies aren’t about surfaces, but rather about our attempts to connect (I have a feeling that lots of directors give something like this as a standard answer). You can see this for sure in his debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape, but since then the theme is only evident in glimpses. Full Frontal embraces it more fully – almost every scene depicts some kind of failure to engage; whether intellectual, emotional, spiritual or artistic. But this seems like an inevitable result of a movie that thrives on chaos, that feels as though it set its characters in almost random motion and then sat back to see what would happen.

That lackadaisical quality is central to Soderbergh’s intent here. He says: “You look at that Godard period of ’59 to ’67, and you admire his ability to sketch. And I think you can get too caught up in this idea that every movie you make has to be a mural. And I really felt like I’d been doing that, and I felt like I needed to afford myself the opportunity to sketch – where things aren’t, you know, so weighted by expectation or budget. It’s not that I view the movie as incidental. It’s just I liked the idea of having the freedom to write with the camera, in a way. And in an environment that seems safe, because of the scale of the project and the way it would be made. It’s a fun way to work; it’s an interesting way to work. It’s sort of an irresponsible way to work if you’re doing a movie on any other scale than this.”

Maureen Dowd in The New York Times dismissed the movie this way: “Just because something is grainy doesn’t mean it’s cooler. Just because it’s shot in 18 days with a hand-held camera that cost $4,000 doesn’t mean it’s more creative. Just because it’s a neo-Godardian deconstruction of cinematic reality doesn’t mean it’s more interesting. And just because it has an erotic title doesn’t mean it’s sexy.” All of which is self-evident (and to digress slightly, just because Dowd’s column has a hot reputation and a Pulitzer Price doesn’t mean it’s always good either). But there’s little evidence that Soderbergh believes any of these straw-man assertions. His faith seems more elemental than that. He believes in the inherent fascination of cinema – that raw ingredients need be subject only to the simplest of recipes to produce something sustaining. Depending how you look at it, this may either be a low or a high expectation of the audience.

Cinematic meaning

Most critics find Full Frontal confusing and arid. But the film is stuffed with intriguing scenes of conflicting expectations, self-delusion, lifestyle corrections and compromises. Sometimes it attempts to tap genuine emotion and frustration; sometimes it just plays at it. In general, the moments when it’s explicitly about filmmaking seem to me its least successful in that they only allow narrow readings. The rest of the movie is wildly discursive and evasive – the absurdity of the Hitler play rehearsals; some low comedy involving a dog overdosing on hash brownies; one-liners galore.

On a couple of occasions, Terence Stamp’s character from The Limey wanders through the movie – the intention being apparently to suggest that the action in both films takes place side by side. Which succeeds in suggesting the immense fluidity of cinema; how it takes only a brief allusion or connection to open up a whole new world of cinematic meaning. The problem is that this can easily become a process of mere recognition – you make the connection, and where does that leave you? It’s as if we’re expected to be excited by the fact that a guy can form sentences, regardless that they don’t tell us anything interesting. We’ve all seen so many films that we think we’re way beyond that. And yet those who know cinema best – Soderbergh, Godard, Figgis – are often the most fascinated by the raw material. Personally, I don’t think the rest of us know as much as we think. Could Full Frontal possibly be ahead of its time?