Monday, December 4, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2001)

I’ve missed Pearl Harbor and Shrek and A Knight’s Tale and all the summer blockbusters so far except Dominic Sena’s Swordfish, which I went to see because my brother and my sister in law were in town and it was something we could all just about agree on. Going on, my thought was Swordfish looked like a slightly more adult, hard-edged brand of popcorn. Well, I guess that’s about right, but how hard-edged is popcorn ever going to be (you could break a tooth!) The movie sure wasn’t a waste of time. I was consistently entertained by it. Maybe it’s even brilliant. Or maybe it’s that I’ve stayed away from blockbusters too much, and I’m forgetting the rules of the game.

Swordfish has John Travolta as a master villain leading a multi-billion-dollar computer hacking scam; he enlists down-on-his-luck hacker Hugh Jackman to do the dirty work. Halle Berry plays Travolta’s right-hand woman, and Don Cheadle is the cop on the trail. The movie is shot in the fast-cutting, high-gloss style we expect of contemporary action films, with lots of explosions and chases and confrontations, utilizing state-of-the-art special effects. It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense, but that seems like a quaint kind of complaint in this context. And yet not, for Swordfish’s most intriguing quality is an apparent semi-awareness of its own idiocies and compromises – an awareness that it airs fully on the screen, without ever exhibiting any desire to do anything about it.

The mind believes

The film’s philosophy, such as it is, seems to be summed up by Travolta’s approving description of Harry Houdini as a master of “misdirection” – “what the eyes see and the ears hear the mind believes.” This has an obvious application to cinema, dovetailing with an opening monologue in which Travolta muses on cinematic creation (with particular reference to Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon). There’s a shot early on, of a ball-bearing rolling across  the floor and coming to rest with Hugh Jackman’s reflection in it, that made me think fleetingly of Orson Welles, and thus of Welles’ admission in F for Fake that he’s been lying his way through the latter part of the movie. Swordfish is intellectually barren by comparison, yet the movie’s excess and the depth of its confusion are enormously interesting. It’s rather like this year’s 15 Minutes, which I wrote seemed to me as though “a serviceable, unremarkable thriller had been driven mad by the intensity and turpitude of its preoccupations.” Swordfish is dumber and more programmatic than 15 Minutes, which in this somewhat bizarre context may actually generate a better film.

The ”misdirection” partly amounts to the kind of plot twists and reversals we’ve seen a thousand times – characters who seem to have died but really haven’t, who seem to be one thing but are really another, etc. etc. But it also goes deeper. The film oscillates between passing reflectiveness – on cinema, on global politics, on relative moral choices – and vacuousness that’s extreme even by commercial standards. The plot appears essentially insular and passive – crime by computer hacking doesn’t really involve having to do much – but decks itself out with vastly gratuitous action-packed manifestations, none of which seem well-integrated into the core plot.

Topless Halle

The movie fusses over the back-story for Hugh Jackman’s character – he has a daughter that he’s desperate to take back from her porn star mother – and yet most of its other characters are conceived only in grotesquely melodramatic terms. Travolta is the most cartoonish of supervillains, and yet comes equipped with a weirdly grandiose motivation – to use the stolen money to gain revenge on America’s terrorist enemies. The film demonstrates magnificent technical expertise – such as a breathtaking circular pan around an explosion – mixed in with a maladroit approach to basic storytelling and clarity.

When Jackman first meets Travolta, the latter tests him by having him hack his way into a top-security site in less than sixty seconds, while simultaneously having a gun held to his head and being orally serviced by one of Travolta’s blonde minions. What kind of sordid juvenile imagination would ever come up with something like this, let alone persuade respectable actors and technicians actually to put it up on film? But the scene serves to embody the sensory overload and fearlessness that prevails throughout. The movie is already notorious for a topless scene by Halle Berry. I was taken aback by the, uh, out there nature of the scene – the camera cuts to her and there she is, topless, with none of the pansying around that normally attends big star flashing. It’s definitely indicative of a definable attitude. Of some kind.

Sidney Lumet

Nothing is wackier than the film’s evocation of Dog Day Afternoon – which Travolta informs us is Sidney Lumet’s best directing job. Of all directors who might have been name-checked here, it’s amazing that someone as self-effacing as Lumet would be the one. Actually, I think Dog Day Afternoon, although still enormously enjoyable, may now seem mainly like an example of how to do a genre piece with unusual wit and energy and exuberant characterization. But some of Lumet’s movies do achieve a depth of feeling and poignancy that I don’t think he’s received sufficient attention for. Network falls into that category, and it happened that the day before seeing Swordfish I rewatched The Verdict – a simple David vs. Goliath legal story transformed into a bracing meditation on redemption and the nature of justice. When Paul Newman astonishingly wins his case at the end, Lumet moves the camera into a sudden close-up of his reaction, and coming after such a still, sculptured film, it’s almost shocking – effective not just as dramatic underlining but also as moral revelation. There’s not a moment in Swordfish (including Travolta’s monologue on Lumet, in which the camera constantly moves in and out of focus) that doesn’t mess with the camera more than that.

It’s just faintly possible that Sena holds Lumet in contempt, and that this is merely the movie’s cruelest and most personal example of misdirection. As you can see, his film accommodates all sorts of musings – it’s a dynamo of signs and possibilities. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to determine how much of this is accomplished despite rather than because of the filmmakers’ efforts. It’s possible also that Swordfish is as near as we’ve come so far to the theoretical roomful of typing monkeys that ultimately generates the complete works of Shakespeare.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Beatty low spot

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2001)

Nowadays, if I can, I stay away from bad movies. Seems obvious, but it took me decades to attain that kind of restraint. As recently as two years ago, I fell prey to The Mod Squad. Just the merest glimmer of possible interest, just one mildly approving critical voice, one quirky scene in the trailer, and I’d be there, never having learned from my past mistakes. But I knew I’d turned a corner when I let Mission to Mars, directed by the mighty Brian de Palma, pass by unseen, yielding to the consensus of the bad reviews (despite some clear-cut dissenting opinions). True, I watched that film on cable later on, but I think it’s legitimate to apply a lower standard once you’ve paid for the TMN subscription. Ironically, I thought it was pretty good – I should probably have gone to the theater after all.


Despite this discernment, there was never any question of my staying away from Town and Country. Forget all the lousy reviews, all the gossip about how the film went over-budget and missed twelve scheduled release dates due to re-shooting and re-editing and corporate nervousness. Warren Beatty has always fascinated me, and I treat his movies – as I have Woody Allen’s for years now – as an exercise in keeping the faith.

Throughout his career, Beatty has worked at a very deliberate pace – usually taking at least a few years between movies, sometimes five or six. Sometimes, he ends the silence with a film of huge ambition, easily justifying the sense of a Kubrick-like gestation period. Reds and Bulworth were examples of this, as in a somewhat different way was Dick Tracy. And don’t forget that he’s one of the very few actors to have been nominated for an Oscar in four successive decades (Bonnie and Clyde, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, Bugsy). But equally as often, Beatty returns with films that are sappy or loose or at best blatantly minor – Ishtar, Love Affair and now Town and Country.

Those films, like Heaven Can Wait and his earlier The Fortune, were either explicit remakes of earlier movies or knowing throwbacks to earlier sub-genres. It’s as though Beatty couldn’t help following up an act of boldness or daring by regressing to the safety of the tried and true, except that he must realize his choices are so tried and true they’re verging on the decrepit. At the time of Bulworth, stories emphasized how he’d immersed himself in black culture, hanging out with a string of rap stars. Town and Country only leaves the white enclave to make dubious jokes at the expense of foreign accents: it’s filled with people Beatty’s known for twenty or thirty years, and even has a role for Charlton Heston (just as in Love Affair he cast Katharine Hepburn).

Away from the real world

Beatty must be the ultimate Hollywood establishment figure – he’s been a leading man for forty years, he’s Shirley MacLaine’s brother, he’s slept with leading actresses from just about every decade of sound cinema, except maybe the 30’s, and he work frequently plays off the fact that we know all this about him, even as he feigns reticence in interviews. He has a hesitant style, as though just feeling his way along, but he’s held his own and more with many of the leading power brokers of our time, and as recently as last year allowed speculation to swirl around the idea of his running for president. He’s known for the labyrinthine nature of his deal-making process, for always having another angle, and his career certainly supports the notion that he may frequently have been up to something we can’t quite figure out.

Town and Country is directed by Peter Chelsom rather than by Beatty himself. Beatty is claiming to be merely an actor for hire, but the movie sure doesn’t look like it, and Chelsom is keeping his distance from the press. Beatty plays a well-to-do architect, married for twenty-five years to Diane Keaton, who messes everything up by sleeping with a cellist (Nastassja Kinski), Keaton’s best friend (Goldie Hawn) and a couple of others. It’s based in the plush Manhattan of many Woody Allen movies, with frequent digressions to second or third homes – the “real world,” as we might call it, is represented by the likes of doormen and the comic foreigners I mentioned already.

The film is incoherent in the extreme, with Beatty seeming to go through the motions – there’s no sense of relish to any of his pursuits, nor to anything he does really, and it’s the same with everyone else in the movie. This might connote a theme of disillusionment – some kind of critique of the character Beatty played in Shampoo, with the excessive opulence forming a metaphorical prison. As you can see, I’m trying to be as open-minded as possible, but if the movie had any such intentions, they’re not achieved. The hiring of Chelsom, who’s mainly worked in Britain and never on anything close to this kind of scale, would only make sense if he was supposed to bring some kind of outsider’s perspective to the material, but nothing like that is evident. Instead, Chelsom fails even to punch home the (oddly) simple comic set pieces – Beatty falling off a roof, that kind of thing.

Bridget over Beatty

I didn’t laugh at all, except maybe during the sequences with Heston and his foul-mouthed wife, played by Marian Seldes. I assume the intention here was to introduce some colorful side characters, reminiscent of a Preston Sturges movie maybe. The stuff’s so dumb and silly that it acts as a respite from the pervading dullness, which is not the same as saying it’s actually any good.

The following day, I saw Bridget Jones’ Diary, which has much better writing and acting than Town and Country, and provides some genuine laughs, and overall feels quite invigorating by comparison. Right now, if you’re looking for viable adult comedy, Bridget easily wins over Beatty. But despite this mediocre experience, I’ve retained my faith. And I’m expecting to be here in 2004 or so, taken aback by his newest change of direction, and reflecting how Town and Country suddenly seems rather intriguing after all.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Sex games

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2001)

It’s a little hard to make sense of director Wayne Wang’s career, but he clearly deserves credit for trying out new rhythms. He spent his first decade primarily in an Asian-American niche, then broke out with Smoke, a film of great ambition and startling shifts in quality. The movie owed a lot to its co-writer Paul Auster, a debt that became even clearer when Auster and Wang co-directed Blue in the Face, a collection of odds and ends assembled around the set of Smoke. Wang then made Chinese Box, a film set against the independence of Hong Kong that burst with symbols and metaphors and parallels – it never felt close to being as coherent a structure as a box, but it always provoked and diverted, and it made full use of Hong Kong’s gaudy mixed-up energy. The best performance in the film was by Maggie Cheung, as a live-wire entrepreneur masking a troubled history, and Wang next decided to explore the female spirit further in Anywhere but Here; however, despite that film’s sincere immersion in the characters, Wang seemed only to steer it along the most obvious emotional highways. It’s conceivable that the formidable Susan Sarandon proved too strong a personality to respond to Wang’s seemingly gentle style.

Indecent proposal

His new film The Center of the World is also in large part an exploration of a woman, played here by Molly Parker as a stripper who accepts $10,000 to spend the weekend in a Vegas hotel room with an aimless young millionaire (Peter Sarsgaard). The deal requires an obvious degree of submission on her part, but she sets out some ground rules: no kissing on the mouth, no penetration…the film’s emotional tension mainly involves whether or not these strictures can remain intact – something that he (believing himself in love with her) pushes for and that she resists. Inevitably, the film spends a lot of time simply observing Parker as she poses or dances or carries out various sexual acts. John Harkness in Now remarked on this in (I think) rather rude terms: “When the camera gets in close to the not quite pretty and extremely freckled Parker, and all that pixillated grain shows up, you start wondering if Sarsgaard may have had some kind of childhood sexual fixation on oatmeal.”

But surely this is deliberate. At one point, we observe Parker at length as she applies her make-up for the evening – we see her rub masking cream on a particularly pronounced freckle near her mouth and transform herself from a distinctive woman into a Stepford-like creation of unnaturally white skin and disturbing red lips. Parker never seems particularly comfortable with the (essentially familiar) role – Carla Gugino, in a brief supporting role, stakes out a more interestingly ambiguous portrait of self-exploitation. But Wang presumably got what he wanted – a deliberately uneasy fusion of actress and role, preventing easy voyeurism by the viewer. legends

The film was released here on the day John Roth announced his retirement as CEO of Nortel, which isn’t a bad coincidence. Sarsgaard’s character is running from the pressures of an IPO that will exponentially increase his wealth – he misses a key meeting with the investors, but later learns (via a voice mail message) that the deal went ahead anyway, shot through the roof, and increased his wealth twenty-fold. Now doesn’t that sound like last year’s story? I doubt very much whether Wang wished his film to become so quickly dated – it’s shot on digital video, with a pervasive immediacy and intimacy: it’s all about today rather than yesterday. But maybe he got sort of lucky. With a little distance from the bubble, we can see how much the whole thing depended on a cult of virility. There were never, of course, as many millionaires as you’d have thought from the media stories, and now that many of those that did exist have gone back to zero, I wonder what they miss most – the money or the legend? Sarsgaard’s character falls right in line with movie archetypes from the frontier sheriff to the spaceship captain.

The result is that The Center of the World ends up playing two rather desperate myths off against each other, not surprisingly forcing a draw. He says the center of the world is the computer; she says it’s the female anatomy. This implies a fixed opposition that doesn’t really exist – Sarsgaard’s playing of the character is so openly needy that it’s hard to believe he means what he says. And Wang provides enough information on Parker to let us know she harbors uncertainty over the path she’s following. In the last scene, Sarsgaard’s still reaching out to her and she’s still hiding behind a pose. Superficially he looks like the patsy. But what is she holding back for? Is she hurting him, or herself?

The film makes good use of its Vegas setting, especially a recurring cityscape including a faux Statue of Liberty, a faux Eiffel Tower and a rollercoaster: an incoherent jumble of cultural references, squeezing the world into a few blocks. The characters barely leave the hotel room, but it’s possible to feel how Vegas’ extremely mixed messages (simultaneously a Mecca to some and a hellhole of crassness to others) influences their positioning. In this regard, the film recalls how Wang drew on similarly evocative environments in Chinese Box particularly.

21st century

But the film generally feels thin and underdeveloped – and it’s reminiscent of earlier Wang films in this regard too. The truth is: two people playing sex games can hardly avoid making for an interesting movie, and I’m not sure The Center of the World does much more than cover the bases. The ad quotes Ebert and Roeper hailing the film “A Last Tango in Paris for the 21st Century,” but if so that only tells us to expect an artistically parched 21st century. As further evidence, the duo also considered The Claim to be a McCabe and Mrs. Miller for the 21st century. I shudder to think what the 21st century’s L’Avventura or Breathless may look like.

Last Tango in Paris has a density of interrogation that goes far beyond Wang’s film. And I haven’t mentioned yet that The Center of the World’s website apparently includes a rather nifty interactive sex feature with a digitally created hooker. To me that sounds like Wang has too much willingness to experiment. Last Tango’s Bernardo Bertolucci may not be the man he was, but I don’t think he’s quite reached that point yet.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Modern musical

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2001)

There’s a new musical to write about – Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. It’s a frantically paced story of love and loss in 1900 Paris, with Nicole Kidman as the cabaret star and Ewan McGregor as the starving artist who falls for her, even though she’s in the grip of a jealous baron who can break the show.

I get to write about musicals so seldom – a reference point seems even more necessary than usual. A few months ago, I was watching Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, which is probably my favourite of all movie musicals. When I’d finished, I was so exhilarated (this on a ninth or tenth viewing) that I rewound the tape to show my wife two things that sum up my love for the movie. First – Fred Astaire’s rendition of “By Myself,” filmed in one smooth unbroken take as he ambles along a railway platform. Second, his more energetic “Shine on your Shoes” number, in which he taps and leaps around a vast varied set of props. This too is shot in very few takes, and provides a sense of unbroken movement, but I was struck by one point at the end where Minnelli does make a cut, coinciding with a key transition point in the score, setting up a new camera angle and rhythm that electrify the routine’s final section. I doubt there’s anything technically that hot about this edit, but if anything about the framing or the timing weren’t exactly that, it would jar. Its greatness lies in invisibility.

The Band Wagon

For me, The Band Wagon is one of Hollywood’s happiest accidents – not that I don’t think Minnelli and the crew knew what they were doing, but I always think the end result has a sublimity that transcends anything they could specifically have had in mind. It’s just a simple fable about a fading song and dance man who comes back to Broadway to star in a pretentious “modern version of Faust” that’s an instant flop, then saves the day by retooling the show into an old-fashioned vaudeville revue. One of the things that intrigues me is that the reversal into simpler and happier showbiz values is so comprehensive that it comes to represent some kind of world view – Astaire and Cyd Charisse get together at the end, but never talk about love, only about showbiz (in a Howard Hawks movie this could be a randy metaphor but in The Band Wagon it seems like a vaguely traumatic displacement). Around the time he made the film, Minnelli was starting to digress from musicals to make intense psychological dramas like The Cobweb and Lust for Life, and it’s not stretching things too much to see The Band Wagon as a study in various kinds of derangement, made delicious by the fact that it’s simultaneously as poised and alluring as anything could be.

The Band Wagon is just one example of what movie musicals never do anymore; it exhibits complete mastery over a genre, and then goes further. Every time we get a musical now it’s an event in itself, just by virtue of being a musical, and there’s no possibility of just playing it straight. Lars Von Trier in last year’s Dancer in the Dark deconstructed the genre – it was an interesting film, but surely the project was too inherently marginal to engender real excitement. Evita was just too much of everything all over. For me, Woody Allen got surprisingly close in Everyone Says I Love You, Maybe it helped there that Allen didn’t seem to have taken that much more care over the film than he does over his normal efforts – at least it didn’t seem paralyzed and squeezed by the technical demands.

Your Song

Moulin Rouge seems to aspire at times to avoid cutting altogether – through computer-aided swoops across space and time, the film creates one continuum of experience after another. At other times Luhrmann hardly lets a single image hold the frame for a second, throwing together breathless montages of incident and rushing color; the early scenes in the club really do evoke Impressionist paintings come to life. When it’s firing on all cylinders, the film seems madly in love with the process of image making, with the evocation of panache and emotion and excitement. Although notionally set in 1900 Paris, the film is hardly tied to that period in its sensibility – most prominently in the music, which encompasses a selection of pop standards from Bowie to Nirvana. Catherine Tunnacliffe in Eye suggested that the  film’s meaning – as a kaleidoscope of imagery and music from the past 100 years – might have been clearer if it had been released, as originally planned, in the final days of the year 2000: “Luhrmann accurately identifies the 20th century’s main obsession – glamour – and Moulin Rouge elevates superficiality to high art.”

This is maybe most striking in how the film constantly hammers on the supposed transcendent beauty of Elton John’s “Your Song” – for purposes of the movie the lyrics are written by McGregor’s character, and they’re constantly referred to by the characters as a beautiful evocation of a purer sensibility. This is so overdone and self-evidently suspect that the film indeed seems to be laying its superficiality bare. But what kind of achievement is that really? And so goes my reaction to the whole film – nothing in it seems intended to be taken at face value, and yet no other value is proffered. Take the casting for instance. Nicole Kidman’s rather neutrally pretty features and alabaster reticence hardly serve to create a specific presence – she serves as a Lulu-kind of concoction. And Ewan McGregor goes through the movie looking much too pleased with himself. The supporting players are more vibrant, but whoever heard of a musical without stars?

A thousand words

It was long ago established that a picture is worth a thousand words, and Moulin Rouge now confirms that a picture may also be worth a thousand pictures. Current technology and expertise allow the flow of Luhrmann’s imagination to be presented on screen virtually unimpeded. If your imagination happens to fall within the exact same contours as his, then I imagine Moulin Rouge may seem a perfect film. Otherwise you may just wonder what you’re supposed to do with the thing. In its second half especially, I thought the film frequently committed the cardinal sin of being profoundly repetitive. Everything in it seems profoundly necessary in that you feel the weight of Luhrmann’s commitment and ambition to every moment, but this entails, of course, that the whole thing seems entirely dispensable. I hate to sound like the kind of traditionalist old fogy that the bright new vision of Moulin Rouge might have hoped to sweep aside, but Minnelli and Astaire achieved much more with less. There’s real joy and sadness in The Band Wagon, sometimes simultaneously, and I still long for a new musical that can come close to that.

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.

Monday, September 25, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part four

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

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

La chambre des officiers (Francois Dupeyron)

After half his face is blown off near the start of World War One, a French officer spends the rest of the war in an officer’s medical ward, where he and those around him gradually learn to live with their disfigurements while undergoing apparently endless surgery. Although it’s a viable anti-war piece, the heart of the movie is in the meticulous process by which the men conquer their suicidal urges, their fears of mirrors and of the gazes of others, ultimately even acquiring the inner resources to make fun of themselves. A disfigured woman, spurned by her own family but beautiful to the men, provides another frame of reference. Sometimes the film seems strained and over-calculated (for example, in making us wait half an hour to see what the officer’s face looks like after the accident) but at its best it’s extremely relevant and yet somewhat other-worldly. Episodes like the mens’ trip to a bordello are faintly surreal as well as moving, and when the armistice is signed, the men celebrate as fervently as the crowds – but it’s a celebration taking place in a sealed-off corridor, high above the masses. The film’s life-affirming themes are all the more convincing for its lack of sentiment – it conveys an emotional theme with clinical precision.

Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair)

A certain crowd-pleaser (and the winner at the Venice film festival) about events surrounding an affluent Indian family wedding. The bride and groom barely know each other and she’s still carrying a torch for her ex-boyfriend, the father (the movie’s beleaguered centre) has money problems, the wedding planner is unreliable and distracted, and (in a surprisingly dark turn), one of the elders is revealed as a child molester. Things go on, of course. The movie has been compared to one of Robert Altman’s sprawling canvases (Altman must be evoked how often his name is evoked nowadays), but that only indicates its limitations. There’s an inevitability to the direction it takes, and the film never gets that deeply under the skin of its characters or of the social segment they embody. Instead, it throws out references and concepts like wedding confetti, presumably reasoning that if enough of them stick, the film will amount to an emotional epic. The juxtaposition of modern and traditional attitudes and outlooks is generally interesting, but on the whole I learned less about contemporary India from the film than by watching Satyajit Ray’s 30-year-old Days and Nights in the Forest a few months ago. And less about the human condition than in fifteen or twenty other festival films.

Hotel (Mike Figgis)

Figgis’ film again uses his split-screen technique from Time Code, but this time it’s mixed in with various other experiments – the film plays throughout with image speed, size, quality and placement on the screen. The film’s plot is much more elusive and sprawling than the earlier film too, involving the filming of a Dogme-style version of a classic play, a mysterious conspiracy among hotel staff, and various other stuff (some of which I couldn’t follow). The film is not conventionally entertaining, and in its willful obscurity and unanchored feeling may remind people of this year’s other weird hotel movie – Wim Wenders’ Million Dollar Hotel. Being just about the only person who liked Wenders’ film, I’ll admit to some admiration too for Figgis’ latest effort. I don’t think it has the overall coherence of Time Code (which to me fused form and content very effectively) but then it’s not meant to – it’s allusive and deliberately eccentric. You always suspect it’s going to end with some kind of metaphorical comment on cinema, but it’s still a surprise how Figgis gets there. He makes the tyrannical, edgy director into a truly supernatural figure, and simultaneously evokes both da Vinci’s Last Supper and B-horror movies, which should indicate the film’s variety if nothing else. For star-spotters, the film includes a brief and pointless appearance by Burt Reynolds, a slightly longer one by Lucy Liu, and perhaps the best performance ever by my old schoolmate Rhys Ifans.

Birthday Girl (Jez Butterworth)

Butterworth’s second feature is much more professional and smooth than his messy, barely coherent debut Mojo, although what minor ambition the earlier film possessed seems to have vanished along with the rough edges. Birthday Girl is a conventional, predictable film about a mild-mannered, unfulfilled bank clerk who searches for a Russian wife on the Internet. He ends up with a real hot babe who may not live up to all his specifications (she can’t speak English) but makes up for it in other ways (primarily by fully indulging his bondage fantasies). Things get sticky when two friends of hers suddenly turn up unexpectedly – will our hero ever find true happiness? This is the kind of movie that hardly needs a festival spot – there’s nothing about it to get critics even modestly excited, and since Nicole Kidman plays the girl, the film is already guaranteed all the publicity it needs. The movie moves along nicely, but it’s completely predictable, and it has nothing at all in the way of nuance, theme, artistic embellishment etc.

Eloge de l’amour (Jean-Luc Godard)

Godard’s new film, widely regarded as his most successful in years, still failed to quite overcome my 15-year mental block on his work – I was engaged in flashes, but the overall shape of it eluded me. Those flashes may be adequate reward though. A meditation on love, cinema, memory and art, the film’s most prominent narrative element involves a project to make a film out of an aging couple’s memories of the Resistance; the first half is shot in pristine black and white, the second in more impressionistic digital video color. Godard works in densely allusive fragments; every scene is striking for the vividness of his compositions; the soundtrack is dense in philosophical and intellectual propositions. In a film that takes numerous potshots at Hollywood (particularly Spielberg), Godard continues to believe in the fallacy of straightforward, self-contained representation – affirming that “you can only think about something if you think of something else.” While this seems as modernist a position as ever, his attention to cultural and political history and lack of frivolity give the film a timeless romantic quality: the music score is certainly as elegiac as the title demands. A character quotes “The measure of love is to love without measure,” and Godard’s feeling for cinema is indeed immeasurable; the film is moving even as it rejects the means by which other films move us.

Monday, September 18, 2017


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

If this year’s Oscars had to be held next week (and I don’t mean to suggest I can’t wait until March) it looks to me like the best actress race would be between Renee Zellweger, Thora Birch, Kirsten Dunst and Piper Perabo. The combined age of whom might just about amount to a Judi Dench. Hollywood’s always criticized for giving the younger women all the breaks, but this is something new. Especially as none of the four had to pretend to be in love with Michael Douglas, or with any other contemporary of their grandfathers (well, Birch in Ghost World hooks up with Steve Buscemi, but that’s hardly the same thing).

Piper Perabo

Perabo is in the current Lost and Delirious, a Canadian film about a doomed affair between two teenage boarding-school girls. In their top floor dormitory, she and Jessica Pare share an idyllic rapport, and a bed, until they’re discovered together. Pare quickly turns stridently heterosexual to safeguard her reputation. Perabo, whose character is stamped from the first scene as a potentially out of control self-dramatizer, quickly goes over the edge – accosting Pare with Shakespearean monologues in the library, challenging her new boyfriend to a duel with real swords, and yelling abuse in all directions.

If I had an impressionable teenage daughter with a touch of the turbulent poet about her, I definitely wouldn’t want her going near this film until she’d made it safely into her twenties. Resembling a slightly softer Angelina Jolie (who did win an Oscar for burning through a very similar role in Girl Interrupted) and radiating as much misplaced self-assurance. Perabo makes breakdown look like the only way to go. The movie devotes itself to her at the cost of almost anything else – she’s allowed to rant and pose long after the teachers should have sought serious help, and her special relationship with a hawk in the forest is too easy a symbol of the primal force she embodies. She’s quite excellent, and she’s certainly charismatic, but in an abstract kind of way. Still, give her a few years, and Piper Perabo may be the next Julia Roberts.

Apocalypse Now Redux

I don’t suppose Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux will be eligible for any Oscars this year (on its first release, in 1979, it lost to Kramer vs. Kramer – how dumb does that seem now?) Coppola and editor Walter Murch have gone back to the Vietnam epic, brushing up the image and sound quality and adding some fifty minutes of new scenes, bringing the total running time to three and a half hours. I haven’t watched the original for many years, so I’m not well-equipped to carry out a before-and-after comparison (critical opinion seems generally in favour of the new material, although with some strong dissenters too). But I do agree with the pack that Redux is the most impressive American movie to be released this year.

It's an engrossing spectacle, of course – especially in the early part of the film where Coppola feverishly orchestrates helicopters and explosions and people into an evocation of war that’s too beautiful and vivid to be quite real. In his famous performance, Robert Duvall is almost excessively charismatic as the brutally effective Colonel Kilgore, razing villages as if as an afterthought while indulging his passion for surfing: an absurdist approach that might have worn thin if pursued for the entire movie. As it continues, the film tones down its potentially cartoonish edge, but hones in on the intense incongruity and confusion that are rather brashly contained in the Duvall scenes.

Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard, sent to travel up-river with a small group, in search of an army colonel who’s deserted and now leads a strange community in the depths of the jungle. In one of the newly-added sequences, they encounter two Playboy bunnies, stranded after their promotion tour helicopter ran out of fuel. Later, they find a French family holding out on a plantation long after all others have left, still dressing formally for dinner and engaging in conversation as though caught in a time warp. These 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); leading more inevitably now to the famously murky finale where Sheen finds the missing Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando.

Kurtz is viewed by his followers as a great man, but the main mouthpiece for this is Dennis Hopper’s character – a standard-issue 60’s hippie photographer – suggesting that Kurtz’ power lies mainly in the very idea of transcendence (or dropping out). Brando’s most famous line from the movie is his final apparent indictment of war “the horror…the horror…,” but if Kurtz is mad, it seems attributable as much to excessive introspection as to his experiences in themselves. “It’s judgment that defeats us,” he says in one of his monologues, and at another point: “You have the right to kill me, but not to judge me.” The movie damns judgment, and makes it almost impossible to render. Just when Sheen should deliver some closure to himself and to us, he becomes incomprehensible.

The film uses fades and slow dissolves and mist to hide the basic linearity of its structure (they encounter one incident, then travel on up the river for a few minutes and encounter another): it ultimately generates the sense of a world turned on its head. It’s no great shakes as politics or analysis, and its energy sometimes seems touched by naivete, but no other current film has even half as much going on.

The Others

I suppose my list of Oscar contenders should also have included Nicole Kidman – especially since Moulin Rouge and her new film The Others constitute two separate chances (if the Oscars are as sentimental as some say, then the break-up with Tom Cruise may constitute a third). But I thought she was swallowed up amid the technical cartwheels of Moulin Rouge, and she’s quite cold and unemotive in The Others. Not that this isn’t what the film, a well-crafted haunted house story, needs. But despite the effective mood and pacing and the nicely sprung surprise ending, it’s hard to get really excited about a movie with so little emotional depth. And Kidman never does anything at all unexpected in it. I’d like to see her carry off a role in which “delirious” was a major concept, but I can’t imagine it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

2001 Toronto film festival report, part three

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2001)

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

The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke)

Haneke’s drama about a piano teacher’s gradual capitulation to her sexual and psychological hang-ups is so raw and intense that it skirts the outer edges of watchability. “What is this foolish desire driving me into the wilderness?” sings a student in one scene, and the film draws on lead actress Isabelle Huppert’s vast resources to create a horrifying portrayal of that very journey. A severe teacher, she barely seems to take any joy from the music, and we gradually see that her psychological universe is just as barren, encompassing self-mutilation, voyeurism, debasement, substantial personal risk. It often seems that she barely has feeling, only desires, and orgasm seems abhorrent to her, as though even momentary fulfilment and rest would be more than she could endure. The film’s scheme includes a highly problematic relationship with her mother, and a finally devastating one with a young student who sees through some of her layers, but not enough of them. Haneke’s films are often set on the perimeter of psychological viability, and The Piano Teacher is a superb depiction of that place; it’s also a hermetic work though, so intense that even its greatest admirers may want afterwards only to forget it as quickly as possible.

Eden (Amos Gitai)

Gitai’s latest film is set in 1940, a confusing and not generally well-understood point in Israeli history. The movie does sadly little to illuminate it – it’s often so subtle in its telling that one might miss entire events. The film follows a small group of characters, embodying different perspectives and relationships to the Israeli ideal, and their fates broadly point to the way forward (in the final shot, the scene around the heroine shifts to the present day). It’s based on a short story by Arthur Miller, who plays the father of one of the characters – his presence is problematic, not just because he recites his lines so badly but because his presence skews the film too much toward comfortable Western intellectualism. For that matter though, the film’s casting is unsuccessful in a number of key roles. Gitai uses traditional distancing techniques to prevent easy absorption into the story and to focus the viewer on the broader historicism; however, it often seems fuzzy in its approach, and for all the variety of events and characters it’s very boring. One obtains flashes of insight, usually when the movie is most straightforward in reconstructing specific scenes or events, but no more than that. Overall, it seems like a major missed opportunity.

Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis)

Every year there’s at least one festival film that puts me to sleep, and here’s the one for this year. I was awake for the whole last hour though, all the better to observe people walking out around me. Denis’ movie is basically horror-film material – a couple of the characters have a vampire-like condition, a doctor is carrying out weird experiments, and his wife is locked up in the house – and it’s filmed in a moody, meditative style (the music score is quite beguiling). The movie links violence with sex, and the screams of the victims are as vivid as you’ll ever hear; together with the weary familiarity suggested by the title, the approach suggests that Denis is aiming not for mythology but for something more quotidian and immediate. It’s often impressionistic, one event following another through nuance rather than straightforward plotting (indeed, the movie is surely deliberately refusing to provide explanations, to tie up loose ends, or any of that normal stuff); it also has some striking set-pieces, and not just the violent ones – for example, it watches the mundane rituals of a young chambermaid who’s oddly drawn to one of the afflicted characters. But it’s very hard to concentrate on, and never delivers anything commensurate with the effort. I’ll concede though that a second viewing might cause this assessment to move sharply upward. (2017 afterword – it did).

The Man from Elysian Fields (George Hickenlooper)

When the festival has so much material that will seldom if ever be seen again, I guess there’s not really that much logic to spending even two hours of that precious time watching a smooth little movie that’ll fit just fine onto cable. But the vicissitudes of scheduling took me into this undemandingly delightful little fable about a career-imperiled writer who agrees out of desperation to go and work for an escort service. His first client is the wife of a fading literary giant who later enlists him to help write a final novel. This is lightly perverse material with lots of potential themes about whoring, integrity, self-deception, and the relationships between them all. Unfortunately, the movie’s heart lies mostly in what it all does to the writer’s relationship with his wife – not that this isn’t interesting too, but it’s far more conventional. The thing would seem more soft-centered if not for its terrific cast, including Andy Garcia (more appealing than he’s been in years), Mick Jagger (remarkably supple and idiosyncratic as the head of the escort service) and James Coburn (almost at the level of his Oscar-winning work in Affliction as the older writer). And the movie has terrific dialogue; it has the kind of one-liners and retort that used to flow from Woody Allen’s movies at their best (albeit in a somewhat different register).

Lovely and Amazing (Nicole Holofcener)

Holofcener’s film looks like a glossy contemporary comedy, but the movie may demand a psychotherapist as much as a critic – it’s virtually an encyclopedia on female angst and insecurities, spanning self-respect, body image, fear of aging, racial insecurity, stagnant relationships, and much else besides. By the end you feel properly entertained, but also educated and shaken – the scope is astonishing for such a small-scale movie. Catherine Keener (whose self-loathing and barely repressed anger is scary here) plays an unsuccessful would-be artist; her sister is an actress, convinced that her sputtering career is a result of her perceived physical defects. Their mother is going into hospital for liposuction, leaving her adopted black child in the care of the two sisters. The kid is a compulsive overeater and clearly disturbed – you worry about the child actress as much as about the character; Holofcener exploits a similar ambiguity in a scene in which the actress’ physical appearance is minutely criticized by her lover. The film has more of a stopping point than an ending, and various scenes and characters and developments are questionable too in one way or another, but overall it’s an excellent use of provocative material in an accessible package.