Thursday, April 27, 2017

My Christmas movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2002)

Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day – three great days of family and tradition, and three trips to the movies. Here’s my take on what the movie Santa brought us.

Starting in the middle, I went on Christmas Day to see Michael Mann’s Ali. Mann is one of the finest American directors. His style alternates between slick (he created Miami Vice) and artfully messy; he draws equally on psychological exactitude and melodramatic grandstanding – much of the fascination of The Insider, his last film, came from the tension between Russell Crowe in the former category and Al Pacino in the latter. His films are glorious works of design and drama, with the music track almost perilously foregrounded. I don’t suppose Mann smokes cigars on the set, but I always imagine he does – he’s that kind of old-fashioned auteur general.

Ali presents him with overwhelming opportunities in these areas, and the greatest surprise of the film is Mann’s relative restraint. Not that the film lacks his usual panache. The opening sequence, intercutting between Ali training for a fight against Sonny Liston, a Sam Cooke night-club performance, and miscellaneous snippets of Ali’s history (including traveling as a boy on the “coloreds only” section of the bus), is dazzling. The fight sequences are staggeringly well-realized. I could go on. But the heart of the film, of course, is the man himself. And for once, Mann seems to blink, coming close to giving the film a soft centre.


Fortunately, he has Will Smith in excellent, perhaps Oscar-winning form, conveying Ali’s mixture of canniness, rough-edged charisma, and bull-headed naivete. The movie has been widely criticized for not explaining Ali to us, but I think it shows how he surely defied explanation even to himself. Near the end, road-training in Zaire for the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman, he wanders off the road, a crowd accumulates around him, and he comes across a huge drawing of himself on the side of a battered old wall. Mann holds the scene at great length; just soaking in Ali’s almost overawed reaction, almost puzzlement (despair?) at the weight of his own myth and rhetoric. The scene goes on for so long, the movie seems about to throw in the towel. And indeed, thereafter, it functions largely as a recreated documentary (largely reenacting the material covered in the documentary When we were Kings).

Veteran sports columnist Robert Lipsyte, in the New York Times, describes as a “major lie” the context in which Ali says the line “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.” The movie, says Lipsyte, presents the line “as a measured explanation for his refusal to be drafted” whereas the truth is that the sentence was “blurted…after a long day of being hectored.” This must illustrate the ambiguity of the film’s portrayal, for it seemed clear to me that the move’s Ali basically does “blurt” out the line, and then decides to stick with it, making up his philosophy on the hoof (one of several such instances in the film). It’s the same mixture of waywardness and populism that has Ali calling himself “The Peoples’ Champion” while insisting in the next breath that he’s going to be the kind of champion he wants to be.

Lipsyte also criticizes the film for leaving out “a reckoning that might have come out of Greek tragedy, (the fact that) Ali’s unique gifts of movement and speech (became) seriously impaired.” The movie ends after the 1974 “Rumble” and doesn’t address Ali’s subsequent Parkinson’s disease, not even in the ending captions. But it’s hard to see how such a last chapter wouldn’t have fallen into morose irony and easily reductive metaphor, falling far short of Greek tragedy. Still, my guess going in would have been that Mann would take it on. His refusal to do so is another example of how he keeps the gloves off. In all, I thought Ali was terrific, one of the year’s best. Still, a lot of that opinion may be based in an appreciation of how it relates to Mann’s other pictures. Absent that perspective, it’s probably too problematic a film to win general acceptance.

Gosford Park

On Boxing Day, I saw Robert Altman’s Gosford Park. As I pointed out recently, virtually every estimable new film nowadays is compared to some Altman film or other. It’s a pleasure to see that the man himself can still get it done. The new film is set in a British country house in 1932, where a group of aristocrats gathers for the weekend. The film devotes equal time to the servants, inhabiting a below-stairs community with its own rules. The essence of the picture lies in its coordination and juxtaposition, and Altman’s handling is masterly – shot after shot takes your breath away with its deftness in moving from one character and mood to another.

The broad premise is that the upper-class are barren and spent (a point ruthlessly executed here) and on the verge of being, if not displaced, at least squeezed by their underlings for supremacy (of any kind). Almost any randomly chosen five-minute chunk of the film would demonstrate this point. The movie turns into a nominal whodunit, with the bumping-off of one of the toffs precipitating an investigation. Altman’s handling of this aspect is so perfunctory that it’s clear it barely matters. Even so, although the denouement is dramatically little more than a shrug, it supports the overall theme. I enjoyed the film enormously, yet among Altman’s later works I think Cookie’s Fortune remains his most rich and scintillating.

The Majestic

Jim Carrey’s latest shot at an Oscar (it’s hard not to concede to the tabloid wisdom on this point) turned out to be his biggest box office flop, and a backward step in terms of artistic credibility. The Majestic has been critically derided, and Carrey may be the weakest thing in it.  It’s a dawdling, feel-good piece about a 50s Hollywood screenwriter who loses his memory and ends up in a small town where he’s mistaken for a long-lost son who was presumed killed during WW2. Carrey helps his presumed father renovate the local movie theater, romances the dead man’s former girlfriend, and has no idea that the FBI is searching for him as a suspected Communist subversive.

The latter element is supposed to establish the film’s seriousness, but is so lamely treated that it undermines the “Capraesque” qualities of the rest. The Majestic is almost incalculably far below the other two films dealt with here. Even so, I find myself more positive on the film than most critics. It seems to me almost identical in quality to director Frank Darabont’s previous The Green Mile; since that (Oscar-nominated) film was incredibly overrated, The Majestic comes as no surprise whatsoever. Much as with Ali, although in a very different way, a lot depends on your expectations. But then that’s Christmas for you!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Film art

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2002)

Mulholland Drive recently became one of the few movies in the last few years I’ve paid to see twice (the others being, if memory serves, Magnolia, Bamboozled, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, YiYi and The Wind Will Carry Us – this must evidently be a personal recent pantheon of sorts). In all these cases, the second visit was immensely worthwhile, maybe more with Mulholland Drive than most. Of course, the film is famously hard to figure out, so that’s no surprise. But I think it’s worth repeating here, for those put off by the prospect of confusion, that it’s one of last year’s best.

Mulholland Drive again

In a second viewing, knowing how many of the film’s secondary elements end up as pure loose ends, I concentrated from the outset on the character played (brilliantly) by Naomi Watts, and saw more clearly how the film’s first half represents a fantastic, desperate rehabilitation by that character of her grim Hollywood experience.

One of the keys to this is the passivity of the character played by Laura Elena Harring – she has no name, no memory, only a minimal agenda, and Watts seems at times almost to move her around like some kind of big doll. Their love scene is pure joyful seduction. Meanwhile, the filling of the lead role in director Justin Theroux’s film is the subject of impenetrable conspiracy and deviousness – while it might hurt to lose a role that way, it’s also an effective rationalization for failure.

With such a rewriting of her sad facts, Watts reimagines defeat as victory. In the second half (what I take to be the “real” world of the film), she’s lost control over herself, her career and her relationship with Harring – this section is suffused with her powerlessness and frustration. At the very end, it struck me that the weird old couple who appear first as her benefactors and later as her tormentors are probably her parents, or at least a representation of whatever developmental trauma brought her to this point: her dream necessarily begins with safely repackaging them into benign idiots. In total, this is a much sadder impression than I came away with first time round.

I’ve always been unsure about Lynch’s work, although I loved The Straight Story (but then, of course, that’s his most atypical film). Mulholland Drive is one of the rare movies that makes me want to go back and revisit all its maker’s previous work. But I suspect I’ll still find Lost Highway and Wild at Heart and the others a little lacking, because I think they miss the profound human tragedy that gives Mulholland Drive its shape. Narratively, the film is as confusing as anything you’ll see at the multiplex, but in so many other ways, it’s more deeply coherent than almost anything else out there.

More awards

No, you’re not imagining it – every year, they have more awards shows than the year before. This year the American Film Institute (“Advancing and preserving the art of the moving image”) established its own gig. Unlike the usual five nominees, the AFI had ten – a surprisingly well-rounded list including Mulholland Drive, Memento and The Man who Wasn’t There. Unfortunately, the televised award show was undermined by most of the winners choosing to stay away. And then, at the end, they gave the prize to Lord of the Rings.

The citation on the AFI’s website is as follows: “Lord of the Rings taps the mythical forces of American film to bring life to J R R Tolkien’s rich literary legacy. Never losing sight of the “human” elements of this first book in his trilogy, the scope of the film sets the standard by which future motion picture epics should be judged.”

So there you go – presumably that’s the measure of what most advanced and preserved the art of the moving image in 2001. Even by the AFI’s own account, it sounds as much about commerce as art. Anyway, I think this kind of recognition stamps Lord of the Rings as the most overrated movie of last year. I concede that I like it less than anyone else I know, and I’m sure it’s a treat for fans of the book (I haven’t read it – it’s always seemed to me the archetypal activity for which life is too short). But on its own merits, the film is a stuffy, plodding, monotonous bore.

Lord of the Rings

For sure, the film’s “scope” is real, with some magnificent landscapes and individual sequences. At times, it does indeed evoke slightly greater psychological complexity than the average action epic. But it doesn’t have much panache, and it’s hampered by deadly seriousness. The Harry Potter film has been criticized for being overly faithful to the book and creating little artistic personality of its own. But even if that’s true, the film nails the giddy thrill of a world just below the surface of our own, so close you could scratch it, yet bursting with marvels. Lord of the Rings starts off with a voice-over cumbersomely defining the rules of its universe, sticks with those rules throughout, and never winks at the audience. If you can surrender your mind to all that stuff about magical rings and kingdoms of elves, then you’re fine. But it’s relentlessly self-contained – you wait in vain for any thematic or metaphorical payoff that might be any good to you once you step back into the real world.

And however well-executed the physical elements may be, it still comes down to the same cliffhanger escapes, battles in which each hero slays about twenty of the other side, the same visual and aural fireworks. The current movie is just the first part of a trilogy, but at the end of it I felt as if I’d watched three films already. Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be back for the other two.

As for the American Film Institute, since 1973 it’s given out a life achievement award. The first recipient was John Ford, and in the early days the award recognized as many great directors (Hitchcock, Capra, Welles) as actors (Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, James Cagney). But it’s four years now since any director won, and this year’s recipient is Tom Hanks. He’s 45 years old! What about David Lynch, Robert Altman, Francis Coppola, Arthur Penn? Well, given that the last two winners were Harrison Ford and Barbra Streisand, it’s clear that the assessment of “life achievement” is a hell of a lot more popcorn-driven than it used to be. If you ask me, they’ve sold out to the cult of celebrity – and to their desire to get a big audience for the televised banquet. Is the art of the moving image really at a point where it owes more to Tom Hanks than anyone else, and where Lord of the Rings is its finest embodiment? Don’t believe it for a second.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Real war

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

The other day I was watching Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River – one of my favourite director’s best films. In the first half of the film, I always get lost in its feeling of authenticity – the stampede and the river crossing and all those epic views of the cattle traversing the desert. But of course, Red River isn’t “realistic” in the sense of aspiring to the pace and cadences of normal exchange. Hawks’ style was naturalistic in some ways, but he kept things within certain parameters of behaviour, generating a wholly distinct, recognizable stylization.

In Red River, it kicks in particularly in the last third, when a woman gets involved. She meets Montgomery Clift in the middle of an Indian attack, falls for him even though he’s brusque toward her, and by the end of the evening she’s in his arms. Then she sets the basis for a reconciliation between him and John Wayne. It’s scintillating as a study in character, but it’s clearly idealized, and in some ways it rubs oddly against the film’s more verisimilitudinous aspects. Rio Bravo, my favourite Hawks film, seems more unified – notionally a Western, but actually an almost abstract world where Hawks indulges his notions of character to the hilt.

Meaning of Right

A few days afterwards, I watched Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, and Red River came to mind in two ways. First, my wife had half-watched Red River, and when the Indians are circling the wagon train she remarked it looked like an old-fashioned view of natives – one that probably wouldn’t get put on screen today. Which may be true for the Indians, but Black Hawk Down’s portrayal of the Somalians as a similarly anonymous, gun-toting mob seemed awfully close to the same thing. And then, before going into battle, Josh Hartnett says how he “just wanna do it right today,” and I thought how much Red River cites the notion of being “good.” If you watch enough Hawks films, you figure out his meaning of “good.” The ambiguity of Black Hawk Down is whether you think it know the meaning of “right.”

Scott used to be regarded as a brilliant eye, whose visual mastery might compensate for lesser acuity in matters of character and storytelling. But the failure of 1492 and White Squall seemed to put paid to that phase, and he’s now reinvented himself as the ultimate Hollywood general – knocking out Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down in less than two years. All three can probably be seen as pure hackwork. But if Black Hawk Down is hackwork, it’s such an accomplished example as to make the term meaningless.

The film, set in Somalia in 1993, is about a failed military mission – a group of mostly young Americans in Humvees and helicopters fly into the centre of Mogadishu, to capture a bunch of warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid’s lieutenants. The mission goes astray almost immediately, leaving many of the Americans holed up, trying to hold back bloodthirsty waves of Aidid’s supporters – it’s a land where bread is scarce but guns apparently plentiful.

State of Hostility

It’s a superb recreation, exhibiting only minimal contrivance; it evokes the sad desolation of Mogadishu and the pounding chaos of battle with equal skill. But there may never have been a war film so unconcerned with the broader context, with the political and strategic rights and wrongs. The film has an unusually long series of captions at the start, fixing the time and place and the approximate state of hostility, and again at the end. But in between, we just get the event itself. To the film’s detractors, this is a key point of moral as well as artistic weakness. This is Rick Groen in The Globe and Mail:

“Without any surrounding context – without a deeper characterization of the men or a proper account of the politics that brought them there – we’re left to respond to the blood and guts viscerally but not emotionally. The edge of our seat gets a strenuous workout, yet our heart and mind go pretty much untouched…if this is artistry, it comes perilously close to the spirit and intent of propaganda – a paean to the triumph of soldierly will.”

Maybe…and yet, if the blood and guts attains such realism, what artistic prodding should we need in order to respond emotionally? Isn’t our reason for grieving inherent in what’s being shown? Maybe that sounds like moralizing on my part, but I think it’s conceivably an artistic strategy by Scott.

Triumph of will

I started wishing he had gone even further with this – that the film was an even more aggressively self-contained, claustrophobic experience. It still has many of the trappings of the conventional war movie, albeit downplayed. There’s the motley bunch of recruits (although the film is mostly reticent about their backgrounds), the theme of naivete and bluster receiving a harsh wake-up call (at the start, the men are so nonchalant about the mission that they leave behind standard pieces of equipment), the contrast between the turmoil on the frontline and the general in his high-tech bunker, the pep talks and one-liners (“It’s what you do right now that makes a difference”). Saving Private Ryan contained two or three magnificent sequences, and a lot of mundane padding. Black Hawk Down sharply reduces the mundanity ratio, but it doesn’t find a new vocabulary of war – it doesn’t have the grand vision and shocking introspection of Apocalypse Now (but then, I query how “realistic” that film really is) or the troubled poetry of The Thin Red Line (ditto). I think it might have got there, had it taken its approach even further – to the point where character and personality might virtually disappear completely.

As it is, as I mentioned, character and personality disappear only among the Somalis. This too might have been a persuasive artistic strategy, if Scott didn’t sometimes seem to be personalizing them – through shots of children carrying guns, or in which a face is picked out of the crowd (usually just before being blown away). And a scene in which a captured soldier is interrogated, providing his captor the most dialogue of any Somali in the movie, may be the most clich├ęd in the picture. This aspect of the film ends up seeming confused and a little opportunistic.

The brutal reality leaves many of the Americans dead and serves as a rite of passage for the others. I suppose that amounts to the “triumph of soldierly will” in Groen’s phrase, but what is that really saying? Ultimately, Black Hawk Down illustrates the limits of setting so much store by authenticity. I expect the film can be read to support whatever preconception the viewer brings to it. Maybe that’s an artistic evasion by Scott, but it’s sadly not untrue to its subject.

2005 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Eight

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2005)
This is the eighth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.

Les Amants reguliers (Philippe Garrel)

In my preview article I noted I'd never seen any of Garrel’s films, and was looking forward to remedying that here; the anticipation only grew after he won the Best Director award for this film at the Venice film festival (which ends during the first weekend of the Toronto fest). Regular Lovers is a long film (just under three hours) and I won’t claim that you don’t feel that length, but it’s a rewarding experience. The protagonist is a young poet (played by Garrel’s own son Louis), initially at the centre of the 1968 agitation – we see him burning cars, resisting the police, and ultimately evading capture after a long, skin-of-his-teeth chase. At this point he has every potential for cultural and political distinction, but this slowly dissipates; he lives with several like-minded friends in a large house owned by a rich friend, smoking drugs and languishing, and then he meets a woman with whom he falls in love, but whose presence only seems to increase his stasis (someone says that they are “losing the revolution indoors”). Despite the reciprocity of her love for him, her trajectory is much more familiar and coherent, leading to an inevitable outcome. The film is shot in luminous black and white, and it generally maintains a narrow tonal register; although the plot includes free love, the presentation is extremely chaste by contemporary standards (the only sex we ever see is on a package of dirty playing cards). This gives it a melancholy, repressed quality that’s effective in evoking the unfulfilled underpinnings of what might otherwise seem (as it did, for example, in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, which also starred Louis Garrel) as a lush wet dream of a lifestyle); the girl says at one point, a propos of nothing in particular, “It’s unbelievable, the solitude in every man’s heart,” and it’s this solitude, immune to all genres of revolutionary provocation, that ultimately claims the movie. Director Garrel (who lived much of this, and was in a long relationship with iconic singer Nico) certainly indulges himself here, and I find it difficult to make much of a guess as to what sense of him might emerge from viewing his more than twenty earlier works, but Regular Lovers at least was one of the highlights of the festival for me.

The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron)

This sweet-natured account of 50’s pin-up queen Page is intended as a “celebration” of her life, and so it is – it’s hard to imagine a more benign treatment of once-inflammatory material. Page was an aspiring actress who started doing glamour shots on the side and gravitated first to “tasteful” nudity and then to S&M, 50’s style (per the film at least, she was only incidentally troubled by, or even aware of, the use that male purchasers might have been making of this material). Meanwhile, she went to acting classes, using thoughts of Jesus for inner motivation. Gretchen Mol is very good as Bettie, achieving a complete immersion in the character; as someone puts it, she’s consistently successful in spending half the film nude without ever looking naked. The movie dramatizes anti-smut Senate hearings – soberly and diligently allowing the testimony of a grieving father who attributes his son’s death to the photographs’ influence – and has a vivid period flavour, but there’s not much sociological ambition on display here, and it ultimately feels like coasting for Harron (who was in more dialectical mode with her earlier films I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho) – the feminist angle is simply that regardless of what porn meant for women in the longer term, Bettie’s career made sense to her, and that’s all anyone needs to know. It’s not that I take issue with’s just that it’s kind of limited. Unlike most biopics, there’s no end note on what happened to Bettie after she ended her career – the final mark of what might actually be an over-respectful treatment of her.

The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang)

When you’re seeing three or four films a day for ten days, you probably treat some of them less kindly than you should, and I’ve always thought I was too snippy two years ago about Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn. Subsequently I’ve read many great accounts of it, and the programme book at the time said it had “the shape of an entrancing, wordless vision.” I wrote it had “just the shape of one, with the feeling of an absent centre.” This was surprising since I’d loved Tsai’s previous film, What Time Is It There, which I often found virtually hypnotic. And recently I rewatched his early movie Rebels of the Neon God, a film utterly anchored in a specific time and culture, with an aching identification for the people it follows, and at the same time utterly timeless, cultivating a transcendently perverse deadpan sensibility. 

Tsai is simply a terrific director. But the journey from Rebels to Dragon Inn illustrates a diminishing interest in the contours of the real world, and this perhaps troubling trajectory takes a further leap with The Wayward Cloud. The new film also ups the ante considerably on sexual explicitness, often to the extent of seeming rather callow and tawdry, but it comes together at the end with immense, unnerving authority. It’s another desolate urban landscape, apparently with no running water (meaning that bottled water litters virtually every scene) but with a surfeit of watermelons, the erotic possibilities of which are juicily seized. The film is a triangle of sorts, with a male porn actor at the centre, his female co-actress at the other, and at the other a restrained young woman with whom he develops a tentative mutual attraction.

The film is full of images of displaced, warped sexuality, often immensely well-conceived, and also (as in Tsai’s film The Hole) incorporates various throwback musical numbers that through their colour and panache further underline the wretchedness of the real world. But the implications of all this seem familiar, circling round well-marked territory, with the new relish for sexual excess serving as the only (questionable) point of advancement. But then there’s the ending. which is gripping, horrible, sick and nihilistic, all of which in the circumstances I’m offering up as a compliment; it ensures that the film leaves more chilling an after-effect than any of his previous works. Overall, in truth, I enjoyed this garish work more than the objectively superior Goodbye Dragon Inn. But Tsai pulls it off only by the skin of his teeth, and he is desperately in need of a new preoccupation.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Memories of Quentin

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2002)

An overdue mea culpa – I used to bash Pulp Fiction fairly often in these pages, usually as an example of an overrated triviality illustrating Hollywood’s loss of direction and higher purpose. I haven’t mentioned it for a couple of years at least now – maybe a sad sign of the effect of Quentin Tarantino’s Kubrick-like deliberation over his next project (out of sight, out of mind). But I watched the film again the other day, for the first time since it came out, and felt quite ashamed of my early carping. Sure, there’s a lot in it that’s self-indulgent, wantonly brutal and violent – the sheer confidence can become grating. But I think I vastly underestimated the film’s formal intelligence. It’s a remarkable mix of fluent storytelling and of longeurs that would be deadly boring, if not for Tarantino’s amazing ability to soak in the nuances and idiosyncracies of a particular situation.

Rewatching Pulp Fiction

Time and character and normal concepts of causation and motivation seem almost infinitely mutable and extendible in Tarantino’s hands – he strips the story down to its bones and lays them bare while simultaneously investing in them a stranger and more scintillating life. And even the mythic ambitions, Jackson’s quoting from the Bible and the strange suitcase and the guy in the basement and so forth, seemed much more compelling to me this time, validated by Tarantino’s almost transcendent mood and structure.

Best of all perhaps was the film’s extreme, glowing romanticism, especially in the sequence between John Travolta and Uma Thurman: it takes two extreme, nerve-ridden personalities and forges a real connection between them – before blowing it away again. As with the relationship between Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, there’s no question that Tarantino believes in love even under extreme pressure, but he’s also aware of how malformed and objectively crazy the resulting relationships might be. In all, a great film, and I apologize for all my cheap cracks. It may be time now to look at Fight Club again as well.

Anyway, just thought I should get that off my chest. Pulp Fiction was of course an astonishing career resurgence for Travolta – there’s a real spontaneity and emotional nakedness in his work there (as well as fine, unpredictable comedy timing) and he should probably have won the Oscar for it. Since then. He’s been as great in such works as Primary Colors, She’s so Lovely and Get Shorty. But lately his work has severely waned. He was the best thing in Battlefield Earth, but his performance made only slightly more sense than the movie as a whole. In Swordfish he seemed complacent, bloated from too many early paychecks. I didn’t see Domestic Disturbance (why would anyone?) I doubt that much of interest will come from him in the near future.

The Shipping News

For a while, Travolta was attached to the film version of The Shipping News, but it didn’t work out and the role passed to Kevin Spacey. At this point, I think we should probably be grateful. When I think of Travolta in The Shipping News, my mind keeps defaulting to Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter. But the gratitude is strictly relative, for I think the film would have been better off without Spacey too. Also without Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and the rest of its starry cast.

I haven’t read the book, but based on all accounts and on what filters through the film, it’s a fairly raw account of a physical and emotional unfortunate. The film is generally wistful – which is exactly the adjective that best applied to director Lasse Hallstrom’s last two films, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. The Shipping News is much better than Chocolat, which seemed to me entirely inconsequential and manipulative. But there’s a frosted quality to it that holds most emotion at length.

Spacey plays a widower, lifelong deadbeat and father of a young girl who comes with his aunt to Newfoundland, the home of his ancestors. Although he has no journalistic experience, he finds work on the local newspaper, writing the shipping news. He slowly develops a relationship with a local widow played by Moore.

The film is inevitably very pictorial, but in the manner of a travel brochure, with bits of local eccentricity and legend dotted throughout. I don’t think it conveys the feel of Newfoundland nearly as well as New Waterford Girl captured the similar feel of Cape Breton. The comparison is instructive – for New Waterford Girl was a cheap, homely film with the confidence to experiment. Hallstrom’s biggest problem as a director, by far, is his adherence to traditional notions of accessible, sensitive storytelling. He is, very likely, the polar opposite of Quentin Tarantino is just about every way possible. You don’t get the sense that Hallstrom could possibly be enjoying himself that much on the set – he makes everything feel so strenuous.

Experimentation wanted

This doesn’t create the best environment for actors to do their best work. Hallstrom’s films have done well lately on scoring Oscar nominations (and a win for Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules), so the Academy doesn’t agree with me. But he plays safely into our expectations. Spacey gives a wounded puppy kind of performance; Moore is radiant. Both actors are too intelligent to convey the tentativeness that their characters seem to require. Most everyone else in the film looks too good (the authentically drawn and worried-looking Pete Postlethwaite, as a nasty colleague of Spacey’s, being the main exception).

There are real pleasures in the film though. I liked the depiction of Spacey’s growing confidence as he learns to work with words; how he finds a real personality in conjunction with an artistic one. The ensemble acting around the local paper is usually amusing. But the romance between Spacey and Moore seems distinctly undramatic. Except for some minor disagreement at the start, they’re always moving toward each other. In general, everything seemed overly compressed to me – the film should surely have been longer.

Actually, I’d like to see Quentin Tarantino direct something like The Shipping News. That sounds crazy, but he’ll surely never top what he’s done already in the lowlife stakes – and the long creative silence suggests he knows it. Pulp Fiction’s exquisitely tender and dreamy sequences between Bruce Willis and Marta de Medeiros showed Tarantino could maintain a softer mood without losing his head. He should give that part of himself a more extensive workout. The appeal of experimentation only goes so far though, for I have no desire to see what Lasse Hallstrom does with a Pulp Fiction-kind of script.