Sunday, June 28, 2015

December movies #2

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2007)

The Royal cinema on College West reopened in mid-December, complete with picketing projectionists and the Toronto premiere of Reginald Harkema’s Monkey Warfare, a highly appealing little movie (lasting just 75 minutes and appearing to have the budget of the average wedding video). Don McKellar and Tracy Wright play a jaded couple, one-time revolutionaries of sorts, now living rather aridly in Parkdale, making money mostly by scavenging (aided with a sweet rent deal from an inattentive landlord). When a young drug dealer (Nadia Litz) comes on the scene the balance shifts, in some ways for the better, in others not. Harkema perfectly catches the grungy lifestyle, and evokes the earlier, funnier Jean-Luc Godard through his use of jump cuts, graphics and suchlike; the movie conveys an authentic hankering for the thrill of making some kind of stand, and for how heavy life can be without it. It ends rather abruptly though, leaving you wishing he could have extended his examination further, although in the circumstances it’s easy to believe he just ran out of money.

The Good German

Steven Soderbergh seems to be in a position now where he could whip up money to make just about anything, and his new film The Good German is one of his periodic “conceptual” projects, the concept in this case being a modern-day movie made in the style of something from the 40’s (apparently to the point of using old cameras). This stars George Clooney (certainly the best available choice) as a military investigator in post-war Berlin, trying to untangle a complicated plot involving femme fatale Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire as a scheming driver. Nothing about the film strikes radically new narrative or thematic ground, so on the face of it the payoff would merely be to craft a viewing experience with a sixty-year-old feel to it, but I’m not sure what value one could ever really put on that. Not to mention that (to my thinking at least) Soderbergh confuses the premise through a very modern use of language and violence.

Still, the film does a good job of crafting an old-fashioned Big Sleep kind of complexity, along with multiple moral shadings, although it tends to make you wish for the zippiness of a Howard Hawks (The Good German is quite laborious and monotone). The final scene does bring a contemporary note of reckoning to a Casablanca-style set-up, and I will say overall it left with me a more compelling aftertaste than I might have expected at the time. Still, overall it’s a film that might have been designed just to be lost in the shuffle.

The Good Shepherd

It’s only near the end, when we see the preparations for a family wedding intercut with the build-up to the bride’s demise, that the ambition of Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd becomes completely clear. Matt Damon plays this film’s Michael Corleone, but the institution here is the CIA and its wartime precursor, which he joins with the same patriotic optimism that caused Al Pacino to enlist in The Godfather. He rises in the organization, but the original values become abstracted and distant, the difference between the good and the bad guys becomes tenuous and shifting, his connection to his family almost disintegrates, and in the end he’s responsible for terrible acts, but on he goes, dead inside, a virtual automaton.

Unfortunately, The Good Shepherd is far less dynamic than The Godfather, with none of its flair for accessible yet nuanced storytelling; De Niro is more of an assembler than a real director. The cast is impressive (Angelina Jolie, William Hurt, De Niro himself and many others, surrounding the minimalist Damon), but it feels too often that we’re merely watching a parade of cameos. Most problematic is De Niro’s failure (despite the movie’s 160 minute length) to communicate the real geopolitical implications of the CIA’s growing reach; we seldom feel the raw power that comes to lie at Damon’s fingertips, and it’s a mere guess what it does to his psyche. The film ends up unequal to its subject in almost every respect, clinging to superficial devices and images when it should have been complex and upsetting.

Two Fantasies

Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is one of last year’s most distinctive and compelling films (and if you remember my ten best list from a few weeks ago, that’s saying a lot). It’s set in Spain in 1944, in an outpost where fascist soldiers stake out a group of forest-dwelling rebels. The evil captain summons his pregnant wife to stay with him, and she brings along her 11 year old daughter from a previous marriage, a girl named Ofelia who is quickly introduced into a magical underworld of fairies and fauns and strange creatures, which may or may not be a creation of her imagination, and in which she may or may not be the reincarnation of a princess who fled centuries earlier to the world of men. The film is superbly visualized, expertly constructed, and completely mesmerizing; it's satisfying both as a muscular adult fairy tale and as a serious minded (if enjoyably lurid) depiction of the fascist psyche. It’s both highly specific and illuminating, and at the same time timeless and universal (one suspects that a greater knowledge of the time and place and surrounding culture would open up almost boundless resonances). Del Toro’s previous films (including Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone) have been a bit too conceptual and genre-bound for my own taste, but Pan’s Labyrinth has a rare assurance.

The following day I saw Steven Shainberg’s Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, which occasionally struck me as a variation on del Toro’s film, except that the mistreated girl is now famous photographer Arbus in her formative 50’s housewife phase, and instead of the magical underworld the film conjures up a weird upstairs neighbour who leads her into a personal awakening. This is a man covered in hair, played by Robert Downey Jr., who has connections with a whole network of physically distinctive people of the kind who would come to populate much of Arbus’ work. As the film’s title and the opening credits make clear, this is all invention, and I’m not sure it’s particularly flattering to Arbus: at times she seems like no more than a flighty sensualist. At best, the concept does no more than vaguely explain her affinity for certain types, but this doesn’t take us very far toward understanding the rigours of her very distinctive aesthetic approach. On its own terms though, Fur is surprisingly beguiling, and quite sensitive and provocative on a scene-by-scene level. It’s best taken, I think, as a wacky fantasy that – despite the lack of any overt supernatural presence – might actually have less to do with the real world than Pan’s Labyrinth.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Best of 2007

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2007)

Here are my favourite ten films released in Toronto this year. It was a pretty good year, although this list didn’t come together quite as easily as last year’s – the last two choices below might easily change tomorrow, and then again the day after that. Apologies to any masterpieces released in the last few days of the year. Happy New Year!

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (Cristian Mungiu)

Mungiu’s remarkable film won the top prize at Cannes, and would likely deserve the Oscar. It’s about a young Romanian student who helps her roommate obtain an abortion, and I can’t recall a film that illustrates certain aspects of this procedure more clearly.  The film is realistic, and realistically depressing, an anthropological eye-opener, and afterwards I kept mulling over its endless subtleties: the theme of physical and existential (and in particular for women, biological) confinement; its immense technical smarts, producing one breathtaking piece of execution after another. This is probably my favourite of the films included here – I wouldn’t have wanted to change a frame.

I’m Not There (Todd Haynes)

As deliberate a head-scratcher as anyone’s come up with recently, this is a meditation on the life of Bob Dylan, represented by six different actors playing different versions (or evocations) of the man at different points in his life (or different extrapolations of his myth), poetically intertwined and juxtaposed. It’s quite stunningly achieved, executed with enormous panache – it’s immensely visually and tonally varied (from pseudo documentary to utter poetic association), a constant tumble of allusion and connection. Sometimes it’s a bit gimmicky of course, but even when you don’t understand some of Haynes’ choices they’re intriguingly executed and thematically provocative within the overall scheme.

Inland Empire (David Lynch)

I didn’t give Lynch’s reworking of Mulholland Drive that glowing a review at the time, but of all these films, it’s the one I most wanted to see again quickly. Lynch of course has an unparalleled activity to evoke menace and lurking threats, and to create a sense of some underlying coherence no matter how the films’ raw elements dispute that. Inland Empire, shot on digital video with an often-grainy image quality, is suffused in this tone. Focusing on the intertwined inner and outer realities of an actress played by Laura Dern, it sustains its project over three hours, suggesting an almost limitless capacity for further revelation, or confusion, the two being much the same in this case. Still, I’m not sure what else can possibly lie for Lynch in this direction.

Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran)

Running almost three hours, this French version of the D. H. Lawrence novel is an extremely detailed observation of the frustrated Connie’s sexual and emotional awakening, via an increasingly passionate affair with the gamekeeper on her disabled husband’s vast estate. This is very much a woman’s story, and has been criticized in some quarters for what might be seen as wishy-washy romanticism (and in others for overlooking Lawrence’s social consciousness). But if you submit to Ferran’s sometimes-quirky perspective, and to the mesmerizingly detailed performance by lead actress Marina Hands (who also won the top French award), it’s extremely satisfying.

Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood)

Eastwood’s second Iwo Jima film of last year opened here in January, focusing on the Japanese soldiers hopelessly assigned to defend that wretched island. Much more stark and pained than its predecessor Flags of our Fathers, it drives home how Flags – for all its apparent respect toward American heartland values – exposes the machinations of a puffed-up, corrupt empire. It has its weaknesses, but it’s a film of great eloquence and weight, establishing the arrogance of the very concepts of winning and losing in war.

No End in Sight (Charles Ferguson)

This highly impactful documentary sets out some of the colossal errors, largely rooted in arrogance and complacency you can’t even process, behind the current mess in Iraq. Inevitably, most of the culpable parties declined to be interviewed – the main exception, who at least deserves points for being game, confirms everything you ever suspected about the cloistered indifference of the decision-making process. Much as the war continues to be debated and analyzed, Ferguson’s film reminds us that full mass recognition of the venality of what’s been visited upon us is yet to be achieved.

Offside (Jafar Panahi)

Like Iranian director Panahi’s earlier film The Circle, Offside is about the treatment of women, focusing here on their exclusion from soccer stadiums: the official explanation is that this protects them from the cursing and excesses of the excited males, but of course that’s merely rationalization. Presented almost in real time, the film is mesmerizing, and extremely subtle. Again as in The Circle, the focus on the women doesn’t preclude awareness that such an ideology traps both sexes, and there’s much humanity in the guards’ treatment of their captives. The film isn’t didactic – there’s some (albeit bleak) comedy in many of the exchanges, and the most compelling argument for change is contained simply in the energy, eloquence and commitment of the women themselves.

Ratatouille (Brad Bird)

This animated film about Remy, a French rat with a passion for gourmet cooking, is a staggering visual achievement, sending its unconstrained camera on journeys of impossibly intricate choreography: Remy is simply one of the all-time triumphs of anthropomorphism – immensely sympathetic, but always very plainly a rat. Most of all, apart from doing a stellar job of promoting the merits of good, natural food, it’s transcendent in its insistence that artistic achievement can spring from the least likely of sources. In this regard, Ratatouille is a perfect marriage of form and content – for doubters like me, it’s not quite as miraculous as a dreamy meal cooked up by a rodent, but it’s in the ballpark.

Control (Anton Corbijn)

This is about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, who killed himself in 1980 at the age of 23, on the eve of the band’s first trip to the US. Directed by Corbijn (a renowned rock photographer who knew Curtis well) in pristine black and white, this is a deliberately downbeat but highly skilled telling; you’ve probably never seen a rock biopic so immune to the thrill of performing and all that goes with it. It allows us a general sense of Curtis’ inspirations and frustrations, but it’s ineffably mysterious, with a sullied, thwarted hope at its centre.

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)

This won the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, and is a most worthy entry in Germany’s continuing dissection of its taxing past century. Set in 1984 East Germany, a stiff-necked Stasi (secret police) officer is given a surveillance assignment, to uncover the suspected subversive activities of a notable playwright and his girlfriend, an esteemed actress. The complications that follow make for a fascinating narrative, loaded with significant moral and political weight. The film depicts a ruling system that’s totally lost its ideological bearings, serving only to crush or warp everyone within it, although it’s also about the power of art in a totalitarian state.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Christmas movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2007)

Richard Eyre’s Notes on a Scandal is a superbly potent, gripping entertainment, but never so potent or gripping that you forget you’re watching a blatant melodrama. Cate Blanchett is a new, pretty teacher at a rough-edged London school who crosses madly over the line, having an affair with a 15-year-old boy. She’s caught by a sour-faced, unfulfilled older teacher played by Judi Dench, who imagines herself a potential lover and soulmate. There’s no possibility of a good outcome, and the film is as concentrated as an acid drip feed, crafting extremely memorable characters and confrontations with barely an excess frame or syllable. The casting, of course, is the key. Dench is winning most of the praise, but good as she is, I never really thought she surpassed the basic simplicity of her character’s conception. Blanchett on the other hand is a complete wonder, transcendently embodying a thrilling network of neurosis and impulses and desires. The film always seems capably of shifting onto a more challenging thematic level, but never actually makes the leap – the conventional final scene is particularly disappointing. Still, for those too squeamish to sit through Hostel, this is good edge of the seat stuff.

Children of Men

The real scandal of our times, of course, is in how the news media continues to occupy us with such passing melodramas while the overarching issue, the only one really, comes into focus only in fits and starts, still failing to grab any meaningful policy traction. I’m talking about climate change, the environment, the sustainability of the whole damn thing, and it’s only the thinnest of silver linings that the issue seems somewhat more central to the political debate than it did a year ago. If you spend as much time as I do fantasizing gloomily about where this is all leading, then Children of Men may be (or looked at another way, absolutely may not be) a can’t miss film. This is a stunning imagining of where we might get to in a mere twenty years – a world recognizably our own, with some technological advancement, but catastrophic overall decline otherwise. It exists at a slight tangent to our real nightmares, for the premise here is an infertile world, where the youngest living person is 18, and life is merely a prolonged deathwatch, trying to hang onto some kind of functioning society while collapsing hopelessly upon itself, morally and financially and culturally.

The film, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, is superbly well conceived and directed – the attention to detail is stunning, and Cuaron’s control of his medium is masterly. Its limitation is that once this is all established, the focus of the narrative sometimes feels a little too narrow: Clive Owen plays a now-cynical former idealist who finds himself safeguarding the only pregnant woman in the world, and has to protect her from an insurgent group who want to use her baby for their own ends. In large part it’s a chase thriller, with some stock characters and set-ups, although all searingly well executed. The film’s lasting impact is pretty much all established in its first third, and there’s a bit of a sense of letdown as that becomes clear, but still, what a dynamite piece of work overall,

The Painted Veil

In a very different vein, John Curran’s The Painted Veil is a delicate, moving adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel, about a scientist husband who cruelly drags his unfaithful wife into a remote cholera zone in 1920’s China. The film is quite a throwback, charting the shifts in their relationship against a highly pictorial backdrop and some old-fashioned personal dangers. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts are both perfectly in tune with the material, and the film gains resonance both from the heightened current sense of China (depicted here at the point where foreign intervention is becoming less welcome) and from how the underlying arc of the wife’s personal journey remains oddly recognizable (if the stuff I read in woman’s magazines is anything to go by). The movie wins sympathy for sheer optimism: as if such a project, released in the same week as the other films in this article, could possibly carve out space for itself.

Curse of the Golden Flower is the new film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou, another immense historical spectacle in the vein of his Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Golden Flower centres on a powerful 10th century emperor (Chow Yun-Fat), his beautiful wife (Gong Li) and three fine sons; the empire initially seems impregnable, until the strains and machinations within the family spawn an unravelling. It struck me that House of Flying Daggers, for all its scope, had only four speaking parts of any consequence, and Golden Flower has only about twice that many; these are unusually concentrated, sparse centres for such apparent epics, but with monumental ripples, embodied in the thousands of soldiers and serfs who populate the film, herded into vast configurations (often just to get killed of course) at the behest of their rulers. This makes for glorious tableaux (even if much of it must be digitally created) but it’s sometimes a little disquieting how Zhang’s recent films mirror the feudalism they portray, swooning over the travails of the rulers with all else being mere cinematic cannon fodder (although I suppose this is no more than the classic approach to tragedy). If you can get past that, the new film is always gripping, with a mild sense of perversity lying beneath its overwhelmingly scenic surface, and some of the set-pieces, particularly the climactic battle, are among Zhang’s most accomplished creations yet.


The first notable release of the new year was Tom Tykwer’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, based on a novel by Patrick Syskind, which chronicles the fanciful tale of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born into extreme poverty in eighteenth century Paris, with no advantages other than an acutely developed sense of smell. Quickly surpassing the limits of the perfumer’s art (Dustin Hoffman plays his mentor), he becomes obsessed with finding better techniques to capture odours, but his interest focuses on the smell of women, and the demands of his project lead him into serial murder. The film is most engrossing early on, when Tykwer uses his facility with montage (he’s best known for Run Lola Run) to evoke the world through Grenouille’s nose, but for much of the time we’re merely watching the unfolding of a clever but somewhat hollow narrative, which becomes increasingly divorced from any compelling period flavour or psychological interest. The movie does have a striking finale, and the way it films some of the women is genuinely sensual and adoring, if you manage to look past the grim role of the female in the whole creation. It’s enjoyable enough overall, but no one who sees it will particularly remember six months from now.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Fall movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2007)

James Mangold’s remake of 3.10 to Yuma, with Christian Bale as a one-legged farmer trying to escort the outlaw Russell Crowe to a prison train against impossible odds, is enjoyable enough, but festooned with limitations. It’s most disappointing at the very end, when Mangold tries to pull off two kinds of twists – one psychological/existential, the other narrative. Both fail, for different reasons. A Sergio Leone, say, could have pulled off the former, and would have had the good judgment to torpedo the latter. Of course, if Leone had made it, the film would have been an hour longer too, but might still have seemed shorter than Mangold’s. Anyway, no matter what you prize about the Western genre, this movie isn’t very effective at tapping it.

I don’t remember much of anything now about Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, but if it’s a mental void, it’s a fond one. The Farrelly Brothers’ remake takes the classic premise – about a man who falls in love with another woman on his honeymoon – and plods through it in the most formulaic and soulless manner possible. It’s peppered of course with the usual Farrelly Brothers’ gross-out stuff, but even that hardly has an impact any more. My conscience is clear on this: a few years ago when everyone raved about There’s Something about Mary, and its makers were being fawned over in the serious magazines, I yawned about the movie in these very pages. Now everyone’s moved on to Judd Apatow. Well, I don’t much like his stuff either.

And I increasingly don’t like Wes Anderson’s. The Darjeeling Limited (actually, his movies generally lose me right at the title) is about three brothers on a “spiritual journey” in India, to rekindle their relationship and perhaps find their mother, who’s ensconced in a convent. Anderson’s familiar style, defined through distinctive fonts, bright colours, slow pans, action staged at right angles to the camera, and sundry affectations, has the effect of draining the flavour from everything he looks at; his India is just another source of gimmicks and bric-a-brac, presented without a shred of real engagement or integrity. Anderson’s self-regard seeps off the screen; you can virtually feel his drool on you.

In the Shadow of the Moon evokes the Apollo moon missions through the testimony of the surviving astronauts (excluding the reclusive Neil Armstrong) and the of-course stunning archival footage. It’s fascinating, naturally, and one could easily have wished it to be longer: with the focus so much on the individual bravery of those nine men, there’s little consideration of the underlying science or logistics, or the surrounding politics. But at the end, when one of them takes a shot at the current preoccupation with gas prices in lieu of sensitivity to the planet’s challenges, the basic point is lunar-clear: the “giant leap for mankind” has dwindled into a sad series of furtive sidesteps.

No End in Sight, directed by Charles Ferguson, is an even more impactful documentary, setting out some of the colossal errors, largely rooted in arrogance and complacency you can’t even process, behind the current mess in Iraq. Inevitably, most of the culpable parties declined to be interviewed – the main exception, who at least deserves points for being game, confirms everything you ever suspected about the cloistered indifference of the decision-making process. Other interviewees, describing how the Bush Administration again and again placed ideology and fantasy above all else, are often close to tears. Much as the war continues to be debated and analyzed, Ferguson’s film reminds us that full mass recognition of the venality of what’s been visited upon us is yet to be achieved.

Richard Shephard’s The Hunting Party metaphorically evokes the Iraq war: it’s a big but shady concept, ineptly executed. Set in Bosnia in 2000, and based (somewhat shakily it seems) on a true story, it depicts three journalists on a crackpot enterprise to interview, and perhaps even capture, an evasive war criminal; Richard Gere and Terrence Howard (both as dull as hell) are the lead actors. Nothing about the film really works. It seems to be aspiring to be a blackly comic, allusive romp, but is blandly made and inauthentic-feeling in all respects. It holds irritating pretentions to be educating us about shady American foreign policy (again!), and loftily teases us on what’s wholly or partly invented. Regardless, you just won’t give a damn.

Peter Berg’s The Kingdom isn’t annoying, but merely uninteresting. A group of FBI agents fly into Saudi Arabia after a huge explosion in a US compound. Dodging local customs and assassins in equal measure, they do the CSI thing for a while, and then the frenetic action thing for a while longer. Movies (and TV for that matter) are so adept now at delivering gritty, multi-layered, handheld-camera mayhem that you just find yourself yawning at spectacles that might have dazzled even fifteen years ago; there’s nothing new here, and any five minutes of Syriana (for example) was more provocative and intellectually charged than The Kingdom in its entirety. The actors, including Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, generally seem like actors.

Robert Benton, who won Oscars for Kramer vs. Kramer and Places in the Heart, is in his mid-70’s now, and Feast of Love is plainly the work of an old man (that’s a glass-half-full kind of assessment). Set in Portland, it weaves six or seven core characters into an amiable, sometimes poignant story of personal ups and downs; Morgan Freeman is at the centre as a, uh, amiable philosophy professor, and Greg Kinnear is a,  well, amiable coffee shop owner who’s desperately unlucky in love. Kinnear embodies the film’s strengths and weaknesses: it’s unusually sharp in positioning his “nice guy” quality as self-absorbed cluelessness, but ultimately backs off and allows him too lucky a break. The portrayals of lesbians, and of young people generally, are distinctly idealistic, as if Benton had never encountered the former, and last touched base with the latter in the 60’s. There’s some surprisingly fearless nudity in the movie, but no erotic charge (the subplot about a porn movie might as well have turned on a candy floss smuggling ring). But easy as it is to take shots at all this, it’s warm and decent and I liked it. 

Another old man’s film, Nicolas Roeg’s Puffball, made a blink-and-you-missed-it visit to the Royal. It’s a semi-coherent melodrama about a young female architect renovating a remote Irish cottage, and falling into her crazy neighbours’ hormone- and voodoo-fueled orbit. It’s possible to see how this might have carried a pretty strong feminist charge in Fay Weldon’s novel, but nothing really coalesces here. Roeg works in some of his old techniques and themes, but it’s a little bit like watching Bjorn Borg reduced to fiddling around on the ping-pong table. Donald Sutherland, from the director’s classic Don’t Look Now, contributes a mystifying two-scene cameo. Still, if you’re well disposed toward Roeg (and readers may recall I devoted a whole article to him a few months ago), the movie can’t help being enjoyable.