Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Best of 2001

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2002)

These are the ten films (listed here in the order of their commercial release) that most stayed with me once the lights came up. Apologies to any masterpieces released at the very end of the year. See you in 2002!

The Pledge (Sean Penn)

Penn’s film lacks the constant rigor and assurance that could have made it a masterpiece, but it’s often extraordinary – one of the great detective movies in which the case at hand is the least of what’s being investigated. Jack Nicholson plays a cop who promises a dead girl’s mother to bring the perpetrator to justice – the film’s greatest strength is its accumulating ambiguity over what havoc his commitment has wreaked on his soul. Nicholson gives one of his greatest performances in years – a stripped-down portrayal of a decent, polite man of modest resources. Unfortunately, this imaginative, deeply skeptical film was poorly marketed as a straightforward thriller and quickly disappeared.

YiYi (Edward Yang)

Yang’s three-hour Taiwanese epic is probably the very best film of the year – completely successful both as entertainment and as art – an intricately calculated film with such poise and grace that it often appears to have been dreamt rather than constructed. Providing a very specific portrait of contemporary Taiwan and of its few main characters (built around a family in which all the members are in some form of transition), it’s visually and thematically dense while always seeming pragmatic. It’s “positive” enough that it can be advertised as uplifting and life-affirming, and yet holds back from offering any false buoyancy. I saw YiYi twice and could easily have gone again.

The Wind will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami)

I first saw this at the 1999 film festival: watching it again on its commercial release, it seemed less striking as an uplifting conclusion on the value of being alive (as I first wrote), and more so as a depiction of the perpetual struggle that constitutes life. The protagonist is an “engineer” who’s come to a small town for a purpose that’s never quite defined – much of the action is offscreen, and the character is frequently climbing or descending, searching, or realigning himself in some way. The dialogue keeps circling back to repeated questions or assertions like a weird variation on David Mamet. It’s eerie and mysterious, rich and powerful.

George Washington (David Gordon Green)

For a while, Green’s film about a group of kids hanging out in a derelict corner of North Carolina seems a bit limited and repetitive. But as the film’s narrative becomes stranger (and it gets quite strange), everything else about it becomes richer, culminating in a series of images that’s almost hallucinatory. In part it’s about the tentative way people attempt to anchor themselves in their environments and in their own skins; but it’s also a pure creation of the imagination – it could have been documentary or teen movie or much else, but found a muse that makes it all of these, and none of them.

The Man who Cried (Sally Potter)

Potter’s epic of sorts, with international settings and a big name cast, is directed at times as though she were dutifully keeping the financiers’ interests in mind. But at other times it’s bracingly experimental (even if slightly naively so). With Christina Ricci’s cool reserve working well as a dancer in Paris during World War Two – probing her own mysterious past while negotiating the confusion of the times – the film transforms itself at the end into a joyously melodramatic concoction. The film seems designed to be susceptible to analysis in the same way that film theorists mull over Bette Davis’ 1940’s films, and it comes pretty close.

Apocalypse Now Redux (Francis Coppola)

The re-release of Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam odyssey, with fifty minutes of added material, was one of the year’s great events in cinema. The new sequences make Redux less of a pure war film and more an abstract meditation on political, cultural and psychological confusion (with Vietnam being one of the all-time great media for such a project); more effectively leading the way now to the famously murky finale where Martin Sheen finds the missing Marlon Brando. It’s no great shakes as politics or analysis, and its energy sometimes seems touched by naivete, but no “new” movie had even half as much going on.

Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)

Lynch’s movie seems to be one thing for the first ninety minutes (a pseudo-detective story with a young actress and a femme fatale, with hints of various conspiracies around the edges), then changes direction entirely. In broad terms, it seems to me mainly about the narcissism and self-absorption at the heart of Hollywood. It’s stayed in my mind – not so much because of its narrative mysteries, but because of the sense that Lynch has captured the complexities of something real and significant while still indulging his considerable idiosyncrasies to the hilt.

Chunhyang (Im Kwon-Taek)

An old man on a stage sings the story of a nobleman’s son who falls in love with a courtesan’s daughter. The film melts into the past, where the story is sumptuously recreated. The film works as a record of a stage performance, as a historical recreation of immense poise and visual imagination, and in its combination of the two as an artistic construct. The plot turns on an act of female defiance that’s presented here for maximum impact and political clout, making the film equally effective as dialectic.

The Taste of Others (Agnes Jaoui)

Wonderfully structured French comedy of relationships, built around a businessman who falls in love with a sad actress and for the first time develops an artistic sensibility. Everything in the film is counterbalanced and proportioned, and it’s often very funny. “Can’t you see?” says one character in desperation, “Some things go together, others don’t.” The fun of the movie is in keeping us guessing about what falls into what category. Its great insight is in its full and mature depiction of the fluidity of the categories themselves.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Chris Columbus)

My favourite big-budget release of the year. Some said it was overly literal-minded, but I don’t know the book. I found the film remarkably engaging, even enchanting, yielding one revelation after another. Certainly, the more intimate concepts often come off better than the more obvious spectacles (which sometimes have too much of that distancing computer-generated look about them), but there’s enough magical stuff here to sweep aside all reservations, and the cast is excellent. Now if someone would just explain Quidditch to me…Harry New Year!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Robot child

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2001)

Steven Spielberg’s first film in four years, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, takes place in a depleted future world where mankind is physically and emotionally dependent on robotic technology; they cook, they clean, they even have sex with us. It’s about a robotic child (Haley Joel Osment) so perfectly engineered that he’s virtually indistinguishable from a real boy. When he’s rejected by his human family, he wanders for some time on the fringes of society, accompanied by another android (Jude Law) and a robotic bear called Teddy, obsessed with the idea that the story of Pinocchio – particularly the Blue Fairy that transformed that wooden boy into flesh and blood – can be made real, allowing him to become human and attain the bond he craves with his owner/mother. The movie’s final section, following this quest as far as it can go, entails a huge change in his and the film’s frames of reference.

Stanley Kubrick (again!)

As everyone knows by now, A.I. was largely developed by the late Stanley Kubrick, who passed it on to Spielberg with his blessing, apparently judging it more fitting to the other man’s sensibility than his own. Maybe it’s a mistake to dwell too much on the Kubrick connection. A. O. Scott in his New York Times review mentioned Kubrick only in a single paragraph, noting the differences in the two men’s sensibilities but not dwelling much on how the finished film might reflect these. Maybe it’s not coincidental that Scott gave the film one of its most enthusiastic write-ups, considering it “the best fairy tale – the most disturbing, complex and intellectually challenging boy’s adventure story – Mr. Spielberg has made.” But most of the reviews I read concentrated much more, sometimes to an almost forensic extent, on doing a Kubrick-centered autopsy of the movie, generally to A.I.’s detriment in one way or another.

It’s certainly not hard to draw parallels between A.I. and Kubrick’s work – in particular, the middle section has a resemblance to A Clockwork Orange and some aspects of the ending evoke that of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I can’t imagine the film would have been very similar in Kubrick’s hands. Whether or not you view it in terms of the difference between Kubrick’s analytical instincts and Spielberg’s supposedly greater sentimentality, Kubrick’s version would surely have avoided the over-determination and intellectual timidity that drags down Spielberg’s.

Cold and warm

Kubrick’s films deliberately resist easy identification with the characters: Spielberg invites it, but not always effectively. No actor has ever won an Oscar in a Spielberg film – relatively few have been nominated. His films are so structurally and technically seamless that the actors seem almost like afterthoughts. Kubrick was famous for filming dozens of takes of a scene and then selecting a version that showed the actors at their least naturalistic. But at least this evidenced a fascination with human mystery and with how that behaviour would be intercepted by the viewer.

Films like The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut certainly elide some of the narrative that we might have expected from other directors, and they’re problematic for numerous reasons, but they also contain utterly distinctive characters that resist easy (if not any sort of) summary. There’s certainly nothing of Kubrick left in this aspect of A.I. I’m hard-pressed to name a single surprising or intriguing moment by any of its actors. This isn’t to say they’re not adept: Osment and Law in particular are both note-perfect, but it’s a boring perfection of a boring note.

Still, this in itself wouldn’t have ruled out A.I. from comparison with 2001. The greater disappointment for me is how linear Spielberg’s film turns out to be. Maybe there’s some mild innovation in the way it splits into three quite distinct sections. But Kubrick’s films do much more than that – they play with our sense of time (both our own and the characters’), they offer apparent closure that isn’t really so, bizarrely extend certain scenes while omitting others that ought to have been there, they double back on themselves, they start right in the middle of something and end just as abruptly. The thrill of his films is often in something as basic as figuring out what they’re really about.

Spielberg’s film is full of memorable compositions or moments of emotional underlining. But when it starts off with a voice over explaining the state of the planet, followed by a long scene in which professor William Hurt portentously sets out for his students the key questions in robot ethics, you immediately realize how little genuine mystery the film will be allowed to contain.

Definition of the human

A.I. is like this throughout, but especially at the end, where some of the stuff that’s put before us (for example, about the rules of the “space time continuum”) is ridiculously contrived. Even if the film’s ideas seemed profound, I doubt that they’d be best communicated in such a way (which I think borders on the condescending). But what are those ideas anyway? The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum, in a surprisingly positive review, said: “It’s hard to think of a more important theme than the definition and survival (or nonsurvival) of the human.” Sure, but the film seems to me more like a statement of that theme than a consideration of it. Obviously, if robots are so much like people that no one can tell the difference, then it poses a question over what it means to be human. But I just told you that much in one sentence, and A.I. can take it no further. Time and time again, it reminded me not of Kubrick but of Chris Columbus’ sappy Bicentennial Man, which also dealt with an emotionally precocious robot aspiring to the condition of humanity.

To sum it up then, I was intrigued but  not particularly excited by the delicate handling of the opening domestic section, I was disappointed by Spielberg’s failure to punch home the middle big bad world section, and I found the final chapter by far the weakest of the three. The film works best as a pure fairy tale, but even on that level it’s diminished by the over-explicit evocation of Pinocchio. As a creation that might be satisfying to adults, it’s severely compromised. Some of the potentially darkest strands (there’s something more than a little creepy about the robot kid’s growing obsession with his mother) are treated so lackadaisically that it’s hard to know if Spielberg’s even aware of them. We can’t know where Kubrick’s version would have ended up, but for good or bad, it’s inconceivable it would have left us so little to think about afterwards.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

This is the sixth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

Sex and Lucia (Julio Medem)

Yet another movie that traffics in vaguely mystical coincidences and connections and overlapping fates, designed for audiences who believe both in crossword puzzles and in angels. This time round there’s more sex than usual in the air, but to me this only made the movie seem even more calculated. The protagonist is a young woman who falls madly in love with a novelist; the film cuts between the story of their relationship (first the sex, then the mooning around) and a few years later, when she flees to a remote island after she believes he’s been killed. Events are complicated further by the writer’s discovery of a 4-year-old daughter, fathered during a fling on that same remote island; while he gets to know the kid, he also writes a novel about it (you can probably see how this could get tangled). The movie is certainly accomplished, but it lacks the wide-eyed charm of Medem’s earlier Lovers of the Arctic Circle, and seems too much like a reworking of the earlier film rather than a project with its own distinct hear. The actors generally seem rather distant (maybe that’s meant to be wistful and seductive) and even though the film constantly generates possible subtexts, themes and so forth, you generally feel it’s too smart-alecky a project to deserve them.

The Sun behind the Moon (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)

With its scene of young boys being taught Kalashnikovs along with the Koran, this film was an especially unsettling viewing experience for the Saturday following September 11. It’s built around an expatriate Afghani journalist trying to travel to the town of her birthplace to her maimed sister (who’s written a letter describing her intention of killing herself during the next eclipse). With only days to go, the journalist tries everything to complete the journey. The film contains many startling scenes and images: a Red Cross outpost where two young female doctors deal with dozens of local men, all on crutches after land-mine accidents and squabbling over scarce pairs of artificial limbs; the bright colors of a veiled wedding party trekking through the desert, seeming as much a threat as a celebration; an African-American doctor who to observe local custom can view his female patients only through a tiny peephole. Otherwise the landscape  (captured here in what often seems like geographically precise detail) is largely bleak except for bandits, soldiers and land mines. The film’s voice over emphasizes particularly the plight of women in such an environment, but there’s no one in the film who’s not a prisoner of poverty, landscape and custom. The film’s ending is startlingly grim and abrupt; a quality that in the circumstances provides further cause for troubled contemplation.

Lan Yu (Stanley Kwan)

Kwan’s film is mainly interesting just for the fact that it exists – an unabashed gay love story, Chinese style, encompassing full-frontal nudity (although I could say that much about every second movie I saw at this year’s festival) and relatively little angst. True, the story has one of the lovers putting the affair on hold while he enters into a brief marriage, and the film chronicles numerous encounters in hotel rooms and out-of-the-way locations. But the tone is deliberately calm and straightforward – it’s plainly a melodrama, but doesn’t aim to pull at handkerchiefs, and the characters develop just through common-sense aging rather than through great events or traumas. The film’s elliptical style, often skipping over big blocks of time, also keeps easy emotions and identifications at arm’s length. It may seem odd, after all this, to say the film seems a bit minor – yet it carries off its chosen project so successfully that you feel it could have accommodated greater ambition. Indeed, the long closing shot, taking an urban setting and rendering it into a flickering abstract shadow, an embodiment of memory, goes on for so long that you sense a reluctance to leave it at that.

Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuaron)

After a couple of Hollywood movies, Cuaron goes home to Mexico in style with this raunchy, good-time account of two sex-obsessed male teenagers on the road with an attractive (and older) female cousin. Cuaron doesn’t so much give in as dive into the fantasy aspects of this scenario for most of the way (I assume the reader needs no further hint of what those aspects might be). But he also uses a voice-over (the equivalent of the photo inserts in Run Lola Run) that alerts us to alternative possibilities, to secrets kept by the friends from each other, and to disappointment lurking around the corner. When this extends to telling us the fortune of a herd of pigs that the heroes run into on the beach, you suspect it may be going a little far. The movie’s final stretch is surprisingly explicit both in making plain the homoerotic subtext to much of their adventures, and in putting the brakes of real life on the good times. The film is also a knowing hymn to Mexico in all its sprawling inequity, corruption and lurking dangers. Although the elements I’ve described are the heart of the film’s artistic case for itself, it’s much more a romp than anything else – if you’re not a 17-year-old boy with a perpetual boner, you may find it a little wearying..

Training Day (Antoine Fuqua)

A rookie cop spends his first day on the narcotics division with a scarily charismatic veteran who challenges (to say the least) his sense of the compromise between effectively enforcing the law and adhering to it. The movie is always too dependent on Denzel Washington as the veteran – the first hour is entertaining and well done, but never seems like more than a one-man show with some half-hearted Serpico-type moralizing thrown in. In the second half, the problems with Washington’s approach become so extreme that any serious purpose flies out the window – and even by the standards of the genre, the film falls subject to absurd coincidence, compression and general tackiness. This is yet another movie, along with Hearts in Atlantis, that makes you wonder whether the film festival shouldn’t abandon any pretense that the gala section embodies quality cinema (albeit of a more populist variety). The sloppy plotting, cynical manipulation and general lightweight approach to serious issues is the exact antithesis of what you’d hope the festival might seek to promote.

Monday, October 2, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part five

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

This is the fifth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto film festival

Warrior of Light (Monika Treut)

A documentary about Yvonne de Mello, a well-to-do middle-aged woman who found her calling as a social activist, working with kids in the slums of Rio. The film functions mainly through observation: the children are all in terrible shape in one way or another – sick and malnourished, but also prematurely morally weary and locked into a wretchedly narrow frame of reference. You’re always aware too that her efforts can only address the tip of the iceberg. De Mello works through patient one-on-one nurturing, taking illiterate “savages of the asphalt” and slowly expanding their resources and possibilities through techniques as simple as listening to them (in the slums, she says, no one ever listens). She organizes classes and group events and for some provides medicine and housing and other fundamentals. The film sometimes verges on hagiographic – it lets de Mello use grandiose phrases like “you build mechanisms to survive” even in describing what she did to fit in at school. And by concentrating so closely on the kids, the film provides only a limited sense of the institutional battles and personal unpopularity that de Mello speaks to the camera about. It’s generally unremarkable in its technique. But moments like the 11-year-old girl, living in a home that can’t even afford a table, saying with deep conviction that “it’s bad to have children,” are always moving.

The Son’s Room (Nanni Moretti)

Moretti’s films are as understated and modest as the man himself seems to be – they prod gently and quizzically at their subjects, but you don’t feel that any major possibilities have been sold short. His new movie (a surprise winner at Cannes) deals with the reaction of a psychiatrist (played by the director) and his family to the death of a son. As is his custom, Moretti avoids many of the most obviously dramatic moments (such as the death itself) and finds an alternative route around the story, rooted in the quiet moments that illuminate the inner pain. The comic touches are muted on this occasion, confined mainly to scenes of Moretti’s patients and his ever-decreasing interest in them. Detractors might claim, not without validity, that Moretti takes this approach because he’s not up to creating scenes that lie outside his prevailing modest register. The film is pretty conventional in many respects, and I think the Cannes award was much too kind. And yet, it has an exquisite final passage, in which a passing incident from the son’s short life provides a way to closure, and the grieving family finally starts to rediscover its lost spontaneity and capacity for reinvention.

Hearts in Atlantis (Scott Hicks)

How many movies end with the hero recalling in voice-over how that long-ago summer marked the end of his childhood, gave him a new sense of the world, etc.? The key event in this particular chronicle is an encounter with an aging psychic, on the run from mysterious pursuers, who holes up in the kid’s small town. Such material would need extraordinary handling to avoid redundancy and ridiculousness, but director Hicks films Stephen King’s book as though it were the Dead Sea Scrolls. Every moment is probed and prodded for spiritual revelation – the overkill expended on such silly stuff strikes me as a real insult to the audience. Still, I thought the same thing about the similar King-based movie The Green Mile, and lots of people loved that – so they may buy into this one too. The psychic is played by Anthony Hopkins, who’s all but wearing a “Slumming” sign on his chest; the boy’s mother is Hope Davis, whose perpetual suspicion of Hopkins’ proclivity for hanging around kids is one of the film’s few points of psychological interest. At various points the movie has the potential for interesting social history, but that would require a clearer focus than Hearts in Atlantis ever summons. The only bright point for Hicks is that the general idiocy renders this film less boring than his last adaptation, Snow Falling on Cedars.

Enigma (Michael Apted)

A World War Two drama built around the breaking of a vital secret Nazi code, with a mathematician hero and a femme fatale lurking in the background of the action. The film is an odd amalgamation of elegant, unconventional plotting and shopworn stiff upper lip stuff, and it’s often hard to know whether its frequent confusion and lackluster pace are deliberate or not. The heart of the subject matter involves numbers on a page, endlessly scrutinized for their hidden meaning, and the film at its most intriguing finds a style that echoes this insular, obsessive heart. One example might be how it seems almost to neutralize much of its own drama: at both points when the hero makes his greatest deductive leaps, the cops are already there ahead of him. Or perhaps that too is just an example of poor design. At least the movie is intelligent enough that you can’t tell for sure (maybe one cuts it too much slack for being written by Tom Stoppard). The action is all extremely modest and old-fashioned – seldom going much beyond stealing secret files from cabinets, although near the end a U-boat surfaces in a Scottish loch. The definite oddity of the project is reinforced by a once in a lifetime producing credit: Produced by Lorne Michaels and Mick Jagger.

Warm Water under a Red Bridge (Shohei Imamura)

This Japanese film is an utterly distinctive chronicle of a newly unemployed man who travels to a small town in search of hidden treasure. He takes a job as a fisherman and falls in with a local woman who has an unusual condition: when she orgasms, she gushes out vast amounts of water (which, when it trickles down to the river, energizes the fish). It’s immediately clear from this synopsis that the film has a mythic or fantastic quality to it – the wonder is that it also feels utterly contemporary and relevant. The film sketches a multiplicity of private worlds – an old woman lost in memories of a lost lover, an African runner who’s chosen this bizarre setting for marathon training – and crafts its characters and incidents with great delicacy, but no sentimentality or smugness. Imamura’s beautiful widescreen compositions bring a classical framing and balance to things as mundane as supermarket shelves and piles of garbage. His thematic scheme is wide enough to make room for local stories, a detour into quantum physics, and a certain amount of raunchy sex. Unpredictability itself may be a large part of the design (even at the end, it’s introducing new subplots as quickly as it wraps up others) but it all holds together – this really illustrates what the idea of a filmic “master” is all about.