Wednesday, November 16, 2016

More big movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2004)

Some more odds and ends from this year’s holiday season.

Cold Mountain

Anthony Minghella’s long-awaited adaptation of the Charles Frazier novel (which I haven’t read) seems to have struck most people as a relative disappointment. Like Minghella’s The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s immaculately composed, and like those two films, you occasionally feel the weight of its craftsmanship might crush you. In 1860s North Carolina, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman experience the briefest of romances before he’s sent off to the Civil War and she’s left to fend for herself on her late father’s farm. Law suffers through hell and ends up at a military hospital, from which he eventually deserts, and sets out to walk back to her; she gradually gets herself in order with the help of a feisty lost soul played by Renee Zellweger.

As Law passes through a series of brief encounters and Kidman builds up her self-reliance, the film sometimes seems to lack any thematic coherence other than a vague notion of the disruptive horror of war crossed with a familiar gospel of personal renewal rooted in love’s reforming powers. Still, I did find it reasonable effective. The film barely acknowledges slavery as an underpinning for the war or a key component of the South’s culture, but in a way this reinforces its impact as a depiction of a world gone mad: the men at the front suffer meaningless indignities and the people left behind succumb to pointless despair or corruption. Unfortunately, Minghella isn’t very good at depicting chaos – with the exception of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays a warped preacher with a style worthy of a Peckinpah film, everyone seems prettified, daintily inserted (rather than dropped) into the landscape. And the film has one of those silly endings that make America resemble one big communal kibbutz. Nothing about it feels intuitive. But the weight of Minghella’s deliberation does result in a properly somber meditation about humanity in a time of war, even if you feel that a more rigorous handling of the material might have delivered something better.


The latest adaptation of a Philip K Dick story (which I haven’t read either) has clear similarities to the last one, Minority Report. Ben Affleck plays a science whiz whose memory is erased after he executes a big technology project, and using clues he left for himself, he races against time to find out what he’s done, and why people want to kill him. The premise is pretty interesting, but the handling is remarkably undistinguished, with little attention paid to anything except sustaining a shallow momentum.

The biggest disappointment is that John Woo directed this. I’m not among his biggest admirers, but even the largely ignored Windtalkers evidenced far more passion than this pallid effort. Woo executes the obligatory car chase in a startlingly cursory fashion, and when a dove flies through a door toward the end, it seems like a pathetic last-ditch attempt to assert his signature. Affleck is indifferently handled, and Uma Thurman, after her iconic performance in Kill Bill, just drifts through the movie – although I admit I find a drifting Thurman more interesting than most other actresses. For all the film’s obvious faults, I must admit I was engaged by it – the way it shies away from virtually every challenge put to it is almost resonant.

House of Sand and Fog

Vadim Perelman makes his directorial debut with this adaptation of Andre Dubus III’s book (yeah, you guessed it) about a troubled young woman who’s evicted from her house for not paying a trivial tax amount. While she flounders around, the house is auctioned off, at a rock bottom price, to an Iranian immigrant who plans to flip it as the first step to building a better life. With the deputy sheriff who’s fallen in love with her, she tries everything possible to get the house back, with horrible consequences. This is one of the most intensely sad (one could say depressing) films of the year, with the tersely evocative dialogue, the precise and highly sympathetic acting and the sandy/foggy photography creating a bleakly fascinating environment. Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley are quite perfect in the lead roles.

It's one of the year’s most accomplished movies in certain ways, but ultimately seems to lack the weight to equal its grasp of atmosphere and emotion. Without the house, she almost loses whatever centre she has; he regards it primarily as an asset in a business transaction, but his regret at his place in life, and his dreams of renewal, parallel her own longing. Eventually, they find a shared space that’s almost romantic in its idealism, despite the extreme tragedy of the circumstances. The movie’s composure is periodically broken by eruptions of violence that perfectly convey the underlying tensions. But in the end, the message isn’t much more than that a house is not a home, which doesn’t feel like quite enough. Still, it’s an excellent mood piece.

Finding Nemo

Two years ago my nephew Michael’s prize possession was his DVD of the Jim Carrey Grinch movie. Giving in to relentless urging, I sat down over Christmas and started watching it with him, except I was really watching Mike, who repeated every other line, howled with laughter, and kept prodding me to make sure I was getting all the good stuff. Problem is, that movie didn’t actually have too much good stuff. This year he’d moved on to Finding Nemo (which I don’t think is based on a book). After much cajoling, my wife and I sat down with him to watch it on Christmas Day evening (the other adults were in another room watching the DVD set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show).

We had slight misgivings due not just to Mike’s questionable taste, but to the weight of food and alcohol and the definite prospect of falling asleep. But we stayed awake, and joined the shoals of adults who’ve counted this animated fish saga as one of the year’s best. There’s the obvious visual panache and the sly adult appeal of the Albert Brooks-Ellen DeGeneres double act (much gentler than the Eddie Murphy-Mike Myers stuff in Shrek, which I found a little too strenuous). But the film’s wondrousness lies primarily in how it takes an apparently scrupulous sense of the ocean and reimagines it as a meticulous subculture, with an attention to detail that goes way beyond the anthropomorphism of the old Disney films like The Aristocats or The Jungle Book. The portrayal of the seagulls moronically chanting “Mine,” is one of those things that could forever change the way you look at a piece of the world. Together with his thumbs-down for The Cat in the Hat, it looks like Mike’s skills as a movie pundit are definitely improving.

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