Thursday, February 15, 2018

Far from home

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 1997)

After watching Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? at the Carlton cinema the other day, I was walking down Victoria Street, casually looking around, when I suddenly saw a topless woman standing in a second or third floor window. I guess she was aware I’d noticed her because she then held up a big sign. I was too far away to read what it said, so I kept going. Maybe I was looking into the back of one of the Yonge Street strip joints and it was some kind of a marketing strategy. Maybe it was a political statement. Maybe she was insane. Who knows?

As I walked on, I started thinking how that 10-second scene might seem if it were presented in a movie. If I were a character in an Antonioni-like exploration of longing and alienation, the moment might drive home the distanced, passionless emptiness of my existence. If I were in a Taxi Driver – like rage against the modern world, it might underscore the sleaze and immorality I think I see all around me. If I were part of a documentary about the liberation of women, the scene might speak solely about her; her self-determination over her own body.

And of course, the interpretation would be influenced further by the way the scene was shot and edited. For example, would the camera remain at a discreet distance or would it zoom lasciviously toward her? The scene would also be influenced by the preconceptions of viewers. After all, no one is entirely neutral about topless women.

This little incident could hardly be less directly relevant to what lies in store for the viewer of Where is the Friend’s Home? But my train of thought reminded me that even for Western cinema, with its generally familiar styles and settings and subjects, any claims by the viewer to have identified a film’s “truth,” to have hit on an objectively verifiable interpretation of what’s being provided, is highly problematic.

How then should we trust our reactions to a 10-year-old Iranian movie? The plot is virtually all in the title – a small boy looks for his friend to return the school notebook he’s accidentally taken; the film is populated by people whose sense of their lives is far removed from ours – its rhythms are slow and not apparently designed for the viewer’s easy gratification. Beyond giving it a superficial thumbs-up for showing us a different “window on the world,” can the unprepared Western viewer do any justice to this picture?

When I saw the movie about twenty percent of the audience (three out of fifteen people) left before the end – that seems to happen with every other movie I see nowadays though. But I was more interested in the reactions of two women sitting in front of me who laughed and giggled (not dismissively but with real appreciation) through many of the scenes. I’m not sure I would have thought of it otherwise, but the movie’s simplicity and naturalism often do generate an effect similar to that of deadpan comedy. The boy’s single-mindedness, and the generally disinterested reactions of the people he meets in the course of his search, conjure up a sense of stoic perseverance arguably not dissimilar to that of a Blake Edwards picture.

There’s a scene in which the boy initially tries to persuade his mother to let him return the notebook: he keeps harassing her and she keeps telling him to go and do his homework, and their back-and-forth exchange is repeated to such an extreme that you almost start laughing from exhaustion. Similarly, when the boy’s grandfather reminisces about how as a child his own father would every week give him a penny to spend and a beating to teach him discipline, and “he sometimes forgot the penny but he never forgot the beating” – his unsentimental countenance generates an ambience of long-suffering black comedy. But is it meant to be funny? I don’t know.

It’s not that important of course what the movie means to do. Movies must expect that viewers take them as they find them. In this respect, you couldn’t find a much better lesson in the universal power of cinema as storytelling. By Western standards the movie’s premise probably seems ridiculously slight, but in the opening scene we’ve seen the teacher threaten the deprived child with no less than expulsion if he comes to school again with his homework written on anything other than the pages of the notebook in question. The seriousness of the situation is all in the faces of the children. Kiarostami gives us plenty of time to study those faces, and in a way their sincerity and simplicity are just what a Western viewer needs – we might not understand the culture, but we understand the uncomplicated impulses of a child, and as strangers are able to trust the child to lead us on the journey. Which might be harder to do with, say, an Olsen twins movie.

If I were less cautious, I might state that there’s nothing in the movie about Iranian politics or – on a macro level – society, and that the whole thing is essentially minor. But how do I really know that? The comments I quoted from the grandfather are made in the context of berating his grandson’s relative lack of discipline and control. We’re likely to read that as a comment on the impulsiveness of a child, but who knows where subtle rebellion lurks or deeper irony lies? I won’t attempt to gauge how much Kiarostami’s work is worth as a specifically Iranian film. But it’s a film the world as a whole can be proud to own.

A few weeks ago, in some comment triggered by a recent description of the radio show Morningside as “the glue of the land,” I dismissively wrote that “real cohesion is based in shared need, not in shared recipes or suchlike.” My friend Walter Ross has taken me to task on this. He informed me that recipes can be a great force for national glue, and in that vein presented me with a recipe for “very good marmalade,” copied out in his best handwriting. To win me over further, the instructions provide time to take in no less than three movies. I shall frame this recipe to remind me of the importance of small things. To Walter, thank you and good luck, and to Lucien Bouchard, expect to receive a year’s supply of marmalade before the end of the week.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Leo the Last (John Boorman, 1970)

John Boorman’s Leo the Last is at once a parable (of the rich man who seeks to give away his wealth to the poor), an attempt to bottle the revolutionary spirit of its times, and an exercise in grand provocation, insisting on itself as art (to the extent of unseen commentators wondering out loud what kind of movie we’re watching) but often feeling as much like a semi-improvised accident. Marcello Mastroianni plays an exiled European prince, moving after his father’s death into a mansion at the head of a London cul-de-sac, surrounded by a staff of manipulative sycophants; working-class slums stretching on either side, largely occupied by immigrants, otherwise by rapists and prostitutes. The class divide is strictly observed by all, until the unfulfilled Leo starts to fill his days by voyeuristically watching the world outside, first becoming fascinated with it as narrative, then as an opportunity for personal action and meaning. Boorman’s simplistic juxtapositions skirt offensiveness at times: take his cut from the poor black family congregated around a (stolen) chicken as it's lowered into a pot, to the tooth-bared, face-smeared meat-gorging at a gathering of the oblivious toffs (which, of course, later evolves/devolves into an orgy). But he also digs deep into the community, finding camaraderie and song and belief, rooted in shared experience, to which Leo can never be more than a visitor. In the end, the mini-revolution over, it seems Leo's happy with the change he’s achieved, even if there’s little pretense that its impact can be more far-reaching than, well, the impact of a film as whimsical as this one. Despite its extreme otherness, the film is actually among the more sociologically grounded of Boorman films (when not in thrall to stereotypes), but nothing in it has the force of real diagnosis, or of lasting myth.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Night Visitor (Laslo Benedek, 1971)

Laslo Benedek’s The Night Visitor is quite effective on its own chilly terms, ingeniously reconciling two contradictory premises: we’ve seen Max von Sydow’s Salem running in his underwear through the nighttime snow, presumably the cause of the two dead bodies that show up in the film’s first twenty minutes; and yet it’s entirely clear that he’s locked inside his cell, inside an Alcatraz-like asylum (if Alcatraz was on land). The physical demands made on von Sydow in bridging these competing realities are considerable – I’ve seldom seen an actor appear to be so authentically freezing his ass off. The plot turns on various propositions of madness, investigated by a police detective played by Trevor Howard: whether von Sydow was correctly judged insane in the past, whether his detested brother-in-law might be insane in the present - the filmmakers surely meant such heavy themes, enacted within Scandinavian landscapes with the presence of both von Sydow (a chess player here again) and Liv Ullmann to evoke the spirit of Bergman (in 1971 about as mighty a spirit as there was). But for the most part it’s all much too enjoyably literal-minded and briskly calculated for that to be meaningful. Among the more Bergman-like elements are the displaced conception of the setting (the Volkswagens and phones indicate it’s set in the present, but that aside it might almost be taking place at a time of beaten-down workers toiling in the shadow of a towering castle) and the troubling stoicism with which the film’s people seem to adjust to the arrival of death, no matter how unforeseen or savage. But ultimately, whereas (say) the title of Bergman’s The Silence denoted a definitional existential conflict, the Night Visitor really is just a man with an ingenious revenge plan, too occupied with its logistics to bear much thematic or symbolic weight, and that’s without considering the contribution of the parrot.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Risks and reward

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 1997)

(A crummy early article featuring a wildly overextended metaphor and an absurd dismissal of Lost Highway, but presented here for posterity)

A riddle: when is the stock market like the movies? Well, pretty much all the time actually…

Things will probably have moved on by the time this article appears in print, but as I type these words on March 28, 1997, it appears that Bre-X Minerals – the company that had perhaps created more fast millionaires than any other in history – was far less special than it appeared to be. Due to astonishing and widespread error, fraud or a combination of both, the results of the company’s exploratory drilling seem to have been wildly misrepresented; when it all blew up, the stock price fell from around $15 (which was already way below it all-time high, and that’s taking into account a 10-for-1 stock split) to $2.50 or so. Those who took the money at those higher price may feel a sympathetic flutter of anxiety but otherwise will remain unscathed. Those who still own the stock may – if they’re lucky – have the resources to shake their heads and move on to the next thing; others who’d loaned money against it may have been ruined.

Bre-X was worthless when it started out in the not so distant past, and may end its life worthless again, in the not so distant future, which would make it a grimly interesting microcosm of the market: a case where, in the absence of any new wealth being created, the profits made by some people must be more or less exactly matched by the losses incurred by others (after taking into account the commission skimmed off at every stage). We might hope that the redistribution of wealth will have had some beneficial aspects to it, but more likely the map of winners and losers will be utterly chaotic – which was really inherent in the situation from the start.

There are many things that might earn you rewards of various magnitudes: working an honest day’s work, using a unique talent, contributing something wonderful to the world – but the really big rewards are nearly always a payoff for having been prepared to take a risk. And although everyone claims to understand that, it always seems to create shock waves when fate provides a handy reminder of how the principle works.

You recall that when the Lloyds insurance market collapsed, investors who’d been raking in lucrative returns for years got all uppity, and in some cases had the audacity to demand that the government (i.e. the normal people) bail them out. Where did they think those cheques had been coming from, given that they hadn’t been doing anything tangible to earn them? More generally, the economy only grows at 2 or 3% a  year, if that, so for how long can you expect your mutual funds to grow at 12 or 15% a year (better understanding of which, in the foreseeable future, might be forced upon our own crazed mutual fund environment).

You could likely find a metaphor there for the success or failures of emotional relationships, for job satisfaction and for much more besides, but I’m not that ambitious. So, to the movies. Pictures that try to innovate, which take big risks, lose big as often as they win big, but when they pay off, you can live off them – spiritual sustenance-wise - for a year. The safest, most calculated pictures provide a sliver of entertainment but seldom pay huge dividends. As always, a sample of films presently on release provides a comprehensive overview of the principle in action. There’s not a current example of a film that reaps big rewards from taking big risks, but then you’d expect that to be the rarest combination. The other permutations are well covered though.

In Lost Highway, David Lynch certainly takes a chance by creating a narrative that is deliberately and inherently incoherent. Given that even the most fervent of movie buffs still find the cinematic pill easier to swallow if it’s got a rattling good yarn wrapped around it, this is quite brave in its own way.

Result? Well, let’s say the return underperforms the market. Lynch’s wacky sleaziness keeps things rolling along, but the fact that it all makes no sense turns out to be a constant annoyance that sabotages the movie’s minor virtues, and a sign that Lynch is in a real creative crisis.

Donnie Brasco, to my mind, takes no real chances. Some critics have praised it for giving a daringly downbeat view of the mob, but this is basically just a modest spin on familiar movie territory. Casting Al Pacino as a gangster isn’t exactly going out on a limb, either. But then, Pacino is the greatest actor of his age, and the movie is made by real professionals, so the result is like buying blue chip stocks – you don’t expect to hit the jackpot, but you know you won’t lose your shirt either. A highly satisfactory addition to your viewing portfolio (someone stop me before I overload this metaphor).

Finally, I don’t know what the book was like, but Billie August’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow looks to me like a movie that tries to hedge all its bets by throwing in something for everyone. The early scenes have a moderately idiosyncratic frostiness about them, but the movie soon starts devoting itself to the kind of action set-pieces we’ve seen a thousand times before. It’s true that such movies still succeed, but nowadays usually only when they’re really expensive (which is taking a risk of another kind). I don’t know about Billie August’s sense of snow, but if he thinks he can strike gold with this kind of stuff…well, there’s a little site in Indonesia he might want to buy into.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Girl from Trieste (Pasquale Festa Campanile, 1982)

I have a memory of driving through some English town in the early 80s and passing a movie theatre where The Girl from Trieste was playing (presumably in a dubbed and possibly trimmed version), a snapshot of a totally different era in film distribution, and in the identification and satisfaction of erotic tastes. Even as you watch the picture now (which I did in its original Italian), it seems almost as far away as that memory, always receding into some barely articulated preoccupation – in my case, the sense of distance was heavily aided by some of the worst subtitles I can remember, rendering whole exchanges entirely incoherent (among much else, seemingly using the pronouns “he,” “she” and “it” largely randomly). Ben Gazzara (also rather pushed away by the dubbing, his usual smug amusement suppressed) plays a creator of apparent Wonder Woman-type strips; he’s working at the beach one day when a young woman (Ornella Muti, whose sense of sultry calculation allows her some patina of control even at the most flagrant moments of objectification) is saved from drowning; she latches onto him; they make love; she disappears, reappears, shedding an alluring but fragile trail of truths and lies which Gazzara attempts to follow and clarify. Director Pasquale Festa Campanile doesn’t give it much shape or energy, suggesting a fine line between creating a studied enigma and simply being absent. It’s worthwhile though if only for the abstracted grandeur of its final scenes – back on that opening beach, Muti, her head now shaven and her sense of provocative distance at full throttle, all but transforms into a baleful alien being, leaving Gazzara entirely incapable of engagement even in the face of her apparent fatal return to the water, only of obsessively trying to capture her on his page, less as woman than as pure lines and curves.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Story of a Love Story (John Frankenheimer, 1973)

It’s oddly appropriate that John Frankenheimer’s Story of a Love Story was never properly released, and is very hard to see now – the title suggests a distancing (if not plain redundancy), whereas the alternative title Impossible Object threatens to disappear altogether. The love story, if such it is, is between an English writer (Alan Bates, in provocative, improvisatory-feeling form) living in France with an American wife and a houseful of kids, and the French wife (Dominique Sanda, one of the most beguilingly watchful of actresses ) of an older French husband, mother of a single daughter. The film moves around within their timeline of their relationship, further destabilizing itself through the insertion of fantasy sequences from Bates’ imagination, or from another imagination altogether – at various times the movie (which, if nothing else, never seems to be merely coasting) seems to explicitly evoke Fellini (as in a nudity-strewn dream sequence) and Antonioni (the title also evokes his Cronaca di un amore, and Lea Massari from L’Avventura enters with Bates into a vaguely Don’t Look Now-ish tumble of sexual positions) and a generalized on-the-fly kind of New Wave-ish ness. It’s hard to know what the (at least to that point) usually tougher-contoured Frankenheimer wanted out of such a project, if not to disappear within it, perhaps to renew himself through an exercise in evasiveness (although with his wife Evans Evans hovering in the role of Bates’ wife and providing a vague tether). Complaints about the film’s inconsequentiality hardly seem fair in this context – it seems designed to perpetually recede (as love usually does, I suppose), shifting for a while into exotic dreaminess and then into sustained, piercing tragedy, before veering away again into quizzical possibilities. The film’s pretty visuals and ingratiating aspects perhaps made it too easy to dismiss (certainly something did) but it’s genuinely, surprisingly rewarding.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Magnificent obsession

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 1998)

On the afternoon of June 30th, I went to see the new British film Fever Pitch, a modest comedy about a schoolteacher in his early thirties whose obsession with London’s Arsenal Football Club may derail his chance for love and maturity. This happened to be the afternoon of England’s World Cup game against Argentina, and of course, anyone who wasn’t at work and had any interest in English soccer was watching the game. I therefore expected to be the only person at that screening of Fever Pitch, and so I was.

The Lone Viewer

I’ve always got a kick out of being alone in a movie theatre. It injects a certain air of privilege into the whole affair. If I’m the only person in the who-o-o-le of Toronto who bothered to show up here, imagine how this movie must love me! Of course, it might suggest that the word’s out that the movie sucks (although I once managed it with the Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves). That may apply to Fever Pitch – I was too pleased with myself to notice.

Actually, I coasted through the movie just by soaking up nostalgia for its many elements of British subculture. It’s so totally soccer; so totally London; so totally British I can’t imagine many non-British people “getting” this film. After eight years away from the country, I barely got it myself. I cracked lots of smiles, but I kept looking at the lead character and thinking: Jeez, this guy’s really crazy (as opposed to just movie-type “lovable-crazy” or just “normal British male” crazy).

But I know I’m saying this as someone who went to the movies four times in the following five days. How nuts is that? Fortunately, since I started keeping the list of movies now playing (which at the time I was updating every week for The Outreach Connection) I can regard the whole thing as a public service. I think that puts me in a different category. There’s someone I see quite often at various films – I’ve never spoken to him, but I keep noticing the guy. For me to see him so frequently, the guy’s obviously suffering from some scopophilic mania. He should get a life. Buddy, if you’re reading this and you think you might be the one (Le Samourai at 6.30 on Friday the 3rd, Buffalo 66 at 3.30 on Saturday the 4th…), seek help!

The Buffalo Shuffle

Obviously, we’re all mysteries to each other. Fever Pitch is shot in the kind of bright, clean-cut style you associate with sitcom – if you don’t like or identify with the basic elements, there’s no reason for you to be there. It takes far greater ambition and confidence for a film to speak in a language that transcends those simple forms of recognition. I mentioned Buffalo 66 – a film directed by its star Vincent Gallo. The grungy, edge-of-mainstream Gallo can’t have been anyone’s hot tip for the next cinematic poet. And yet, Buffalo 66 – dealing in awfully dour, unprepossessing material – is a constant astonishment, and one of the year’s very best films.

From the opening scene – in which Gallo’s intense, obsessive character comes outside for a while thinking things over, then asks to be let back to use the bathroom – the film treads (utterly consistently) a line between deadpan disillusionment, hopeless dysfunction, emotional crisis, and (happily) the prospect of redemption and renewal, all conveyed with huge style and confidence, and it’s funny! Gallo’s character kidnaps a young woman (played by Christina Ricci) almost at random, and forces her to pose as his wife on a visit to his parents (an utterly horrifying but mesmerizing joint creation by Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston). Having thereby satisfied some sense of obligation, he plans to dump her and kill the former Buffalo Bills football player (and now strip-joint owner) whose missed kick in a long-ago Super Bowl was - as he sees it – the source of his recent woes. But despite his dismal treatment of her, she won’t let him go.

Best debut 98?

The film is open to various charges. Ricci’s character is too close to the misogynist fantasy of the rape victim who likes it. Gallo delivers a jittery sub-Pacino performance that sometimes resembles an acting class exercise; his character is given a wretched personal history that’s rather too overtly sculptured; as a director, his stylistic innovations (showy camera placement, the unique juxtaposing of flashbacks in and out of the action, his astonishing handling of a fantasized death scene toward the end, in which he somehow freezes the gory details in a near-3D effect; the glazed, archived or washed-out look of so many scenes; the use of parody and excess in the acting) could all be dismissed as pretentious flourishes.

But however strongly you might be inclined to resist some of these elements, the film is a huge success. It immerses you in a completely alien landscape. There’s hardly a moment of false glamour in the film – people look ugly and fleshy and sloppily groomed and badly-dressed, and you can smell the decrepitude in every scene. To that extent, the film has the honesty of a documentary, but Gallo’s cinematic edginess simultaneously makes events resemble a deranged (if impoverished) fantasy. That might have taken us no further than David Lynch territory, as yet another expose of sordid secrets and subtexts, but Gallo never seems to be pursuing a simple agenda (only at the very end, perhaps), and he finds his way to some genuinely striking illumination of character. It’s hard to judge someone from his directorial debut, but Gallo looks here like someone with an affinity for somewhat romantic, edgy fatalism, enormous imagination, and huge self-belief. That could be the basis for a directorial career to rival the Coen Brothers and Tarantino.

And happily, the screening of Buffalo 66 was far from empty. Perhaps the good word is already out. I mean, we’re all obsessive in one way or another, and should all be potentially satisfied customers for a movie reflecting those qualities. Fever Pitch, although entertaining, isn’t about much more than one man’s problems. Buffalo 66, also about one man’s problems, has the upper hand twice: it’s a better depiction both of the man, and of the audience.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

2001 Toronto film festival report, part seven

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2001)

This is the seventh and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival.

L’Anglaise et le Duc (Eric Rohmer)
81-year-old Rohmer’s film, set during the French Revolution, uses digital technology to insert its characters into painted settings. The technique is unsettling at first, but as the film progresses, the artificiality strangely becomes a means of authenticity – the unfamiliarity of its appearance reinforces the sense of a true window into the past. The title characters, she a Royalist and he affiliated with Robespierre, are former lovers whose shifting fortunes reflect the progress of the Revolution. Much of the film consists of conversation, and in this respect it’s certainly not that far removed from Rohmer’s contemporary works, although under the circumstances politics and survival are more pressing subjects than the machinations of love. The characters are superbly self-aware and regard the analysis of the event as part and parcel of living it (a quality that gives them a useful stoicism, if not fatalism, at times of pressure). The matter-of-fact air of even the most dramatic events (there’s an especially well-executed scene in which she hides a fugitive in her bed) seems like a further guarantee of verisimilitude. It’s a film that’s extremely modern while possessing the most classical of qualities, excellently acted especially by Lucy Russell as the lady; some might find it a bit talky and distended, but it will probably stand as a key Rohmer film.

Revolution #9 (Tim McCann)
McCann’s film starts with a young woman bringing home her new fiancée to meet her family – they express doubts about the guy, and then from the very next scene we see that he’s losing his grip on reality. He imagines that his young nephew-to-be is part of an internet-driven conspiracy against him and that a TV perfume commercial is the nexus of a sophisticated mind-control plot. In the film’s best scene, he tracks down and interrogates the ad’s director; taking him for a journalist, the self-absorbed director takes a hilariously long time to catch on. The film intertwines events from his perspective with events from his fiancee’s. The first is a troubled, paranoid fantasy; the second a gritty account of having to cope with his mood swings, the opposition of her family, the police and the public health system (the film spends a surprising amount of time on the details of his journey through the New York psychiatric admission process). It’s also attentive to the real lives of its characters, with money a perpetual issue: because it’s so well-grounded in economic and emotional reality (she’s presumably as dependent on him in some way as he is on her), the film can afford to indulge itself a little in how it visualizes his mental state. At times, these indulgences render it a little repetitive and derivative, but it leaves a strong after-impression.

Lantana (Ray Lawrence)
The Festival closing gala was this somber, troubled drama about interlocking characters in an Australian suburb. It’s somewhere in between a film noir and a kitchen sinker, with a vaguely Latin flavour thrown in (for exoticism I guess) – Blue Velvet and La ronde may be other occasional reference points. Anthony LaPaglia plays a cop who’s cheating on his wife with the woman who lives next door to a guy who may have committed a crime that the cop’s investigating – to summarize just one plot strand (Geoffrey Rush and Barbara Hershey are also in the movie, both to lesser effect). The connections are sometimes illuminating (it makes bedmates out of guilt and innocence, truth and lies; it transforms pursuers to pursued at a snap) but are almost as often mildly groan-inducing. The film maintains its smoky poise very well throughout, but the artistic and thematic calculations drive out much spontaneity and feeling. It also seems to me that the men in the movie are generally allowed a more complex and boisterous brand of angst than the more straightforwardly unfulfilled women – but then it is an Australian movie after all. Lantana’s finest point may be the ending – the solution to the central mystery is mundane enough to be authentically tragic.

Festival summary
As everyone says, it was two events. The movies were just as good in the second half, or just as bad, whatever, but a pinched, dutiful air settled over the whole thing.

I was waiting for a movie to start when I heard about New York. Someone a few rows back said the World Trade Center was gone, and the Pentagon too. It’s not that I disbelieved him exactly, but your concept of your world can only move so far based on one overheard fragment. Then someone else came in who was deeply upset, and I knew something real was happening. For all I knew it was the beginning of the end – I certainly considered it. But I thought – as long as the movie plays, things can’t be that bad. And I waited, and the movie did play, from beginning to end. Then I came out and went downtown, and there were no more movies that day.

This year I stuck to a very steady pace (three a day, pretty much every day) and kept healthy hours – I didn’t go to any screenings ending past 8.30 pm. Some movies I deeply wanted to see (Andre Techine’s Loin, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Millennium Mambo) couldn’t be accommodated by this structure, and they dropped by the wayside. I took more chances this year than I have the past few years, and on the whole they paid off. I wish I’d seen more movies that clearly belonged in the highest rank, but I was nearly always stimulated and intrigued.

My favourite films of the festival were all from Asia: What Time is it There, Pulse and Warm Water under a Red Bridge. Lovely and Amazing was probably the most memorable of the American films; The Pianist and L’Anglaise et le Duc the most memorable of the European ones. Last Wedding was the most memorable Canadian film I saw…well, I guess the only Canadian film I saw. Trouble Every Day put me to sleep, but may stand most to gain from a second viewing. Of the other 25 films I’ve written about, the ones with least to recommend them are probably Sex and Lucia, Heist, Warrior of Light, Birthday Girl and Innocent Fairies (I’m leaving aside the gala offerings Hearts in Atlantis and Training Day, which hardly seem like serious festival offerings at all). But then, I enjoyed watching even those films much more than not. So keep the articles, wait until the movies open (in the case of the foreign ones, pray that they do) and enjoy!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Toronto film festival report, part four

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1999)

This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival.

Breakfast of Champions (Alan Rudolph)
Impossible to imagine many people actually liking this hyperactive version of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel about the impossible strains of latter-day consumption-crazed America (it’s already been and gone from commercial release), although Nick Nolte’s performance as a cracked cross-dresser almost redeems the whole thing. Bruce Willis, though, in the central role, is as flat as the cardboard cutouts of him that pop up in every other scene (as with so much about this film, it’s hard to tell how deliberate that is). The film is seeped in tacky, garish imagery, reminiscent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (although the characters aren’t on acid exactly): it’s a strange, hermetic construct – not wacky enough to be interesting on its own terms, but not sufficiently relevant to perform as satire (particularly as the ending is more a surrender than a conclusion). It does generate a strange sense of alienation and longing, and some of Rudolph’s visual tricks are giddily entertaining in the manner of a Monty Python cartoon insert: one suspects the film’s nutty messiness is more or less what was intended, but it’s hard to celebrate that kind of success.

Guinevere (Audrey Wells)
This sensitive drama of a young woman’s affair with a much older photographer effectively explores the problematic nature for a woman of finding one’s identity and maturity through a relationship which inherently seems weighted towards the egotistical gratification of the male. Sarah Polley and Stephen Rea make intriguing partners in what develops into a subtle power game, even if the conception of Rea’s character tends a bit too much toward conventional, self-possessed charismatic distance. The film’s side-excursions into satire (mainly through pot-shots at Polley’s constipated family of lawyers) are most successful; in the end, the film allows Rea a measure of indulgence in his grandiose fantasy, but makes that enjoyment explicitly a gift that lies under Polley’s control – one might have a satisfying sexual-politics-oriented debate about whether this is a satisfying arrival point (I think it’s passable).

Women talking Dirty (Coky Giedroyc)
An undistinguished piece of festival schedule-padding that although not the worst film I saw at the festival was the one that left my head feeling the emptiest. Two women in picturesque Edinburgh go through an unremarkable succession of romantic ups and downs; one (Helena Bonham Carter) is tediously quirky, the other (Gina McKee) is low-key and mopey. There’s an icky secret that injects some fire into the latter stages, but so little happens through vast stretches of the film that I defy anyone not to get distracted by McKee’s quite pretty apartment and to drift off into thinking about home decorating (great purple couch). The themes, of course, involve female self-determination and life-balance issues (the same issues currently dealt with more effectively in Guinevere and Tumbleweeds and, I’m sure, numerous others). There’s not much dirty talk, which is a further disadvantage. The film is so undistinctive that it plays Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” over one sequence. Elton John was one of the producers. Can’t think of anything else to say about it.

Tumbleweeds (Gavin O’Connor)
A film that, compared with the above, evidences vastly superior insight and finesse in dealing with broadly similar concerns. Janet McTeer  (in an excellent, wide-ranging performance) plays a four-times-married woman whose response to romantic letdowns is always to move along, with her 10-year-old daughter in tow. The film is fundamentally familiar in its exploration of how a woman asserts her self-determination and independence when drawn as a matter of emotional and sexual practicality into relationships with men (none of whom, as luck would have it, are much good); it’s an older, blue-collar version of Guinevere, given additional resonance by the contrast with the daughter’s budding maturity and the well-caught texture of the small-town Northern Californian surroundings. Any film that can cast the great and weird Michael J. Pollard as an office manager without losing its grip on plausibility has confidence to burn; director O’Connor seems to have a perfect sense for where quirkiness and realism most profitably intersect, and creates a rich, resonant film.

Onegin (Martha Fiennes)
An oddly somber, if not depressing, choice as the closing night gala, this tragic story of a nobleman who spurns an offered love then later seeks to reclaim it is dramatically rather inert and thematically unexceptional. Ralph Fiennes rises well to the challenge of Onegin, conveying the character’s shift from arrogance to desolation (his motives remain undramatized in some key respects, but the film is comfortable with its own mystery). Liv Tyler is also as good as she’s ever been. The film’s brooding atmosphere is sometimes highly effective (such as in an almost unbearably tense duel sequence); sometimes on the strained side, with the sound design introducing an almost otherworldly element into its dramatization of disengagement and decay. Its measured eeriness is never dull, but the attention given to the film may be a counterproductive case of overselling – there’s a severe limit to how much hype this modest work can carry.

Mumford (Lawrence Kasdan)
Already in commercial release, this gentle film about the attainment of unobtrusive stability has a style that almost expresses its theme too well – it’s so polite and pleasant as to almost melt away before your very eyes. Loren Dean plays a psychologist called Mumford, practicing in the small town of Mumford (neatly summarizing the theme of assimilation), who achieves success and local popularity more through sympathetic listening and empathy than through clinical technique – no surprise then, that he’s not a psychologist at all, but just a man trying to escape the mistakes of his past. Dean’s undemonstrative performance is oddly suited to a movie that’s clearly conservative, if not regressive, in its distrust of pace, ambition and big business (Ted Danson has a wonderful cameo as the embodiment of all these evils). In many ways the movie seems merely trite and naïve, hardly funny at all even though it’s being sold as a comedy, and yet it’s certainly coherent and assured – it’s as if Kasdan had been making the same basic movie for years and has thus attained a comfortable, almost effortless autopilot; a strange effect given that this hasn’t in fact been Kasdan’s career.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Miracle on the greens

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2000)

I doubt that my low regard for Robert Redford’s new film The Legend of Bagger Vance is simply a consequence of my not being a golfer. True, it came as a surprise to me how much of the film – well over half – consists basically of a golf tournament, the progress of which marks (of course) the redemption of its protagonist. But then, Ron Shelton’s Tin Cup a few years ago was also an intensive golf movie, and I liked that one just fine (I cannot at the moment recall with accuracy whether I’ve ever seen the daddy of them all, Caddyshack, although for some reason I’m fairly sure I’ve seen Caddyshack 2). I watch the major tournaments on TV, monitor Tiger Woods’ progress toward the record of 18 major championships, and have occasionally faked my way through a conversation with a keen golfer without ever divulging my own lack of participation. I rather like the notion of golf as a solitary endeavor, spread out over a vast terrain, variously requiring both brute strength and extraordinary delicacy of touch and analysis. None of this is likely to find me spending three or four hours walking and hitting balls when I could be watching a movie (not just any movie – Lawrence of Arabia!), but it means I’m as up for a good golf movie as anyone else is.

Faded hotshot

Steeped in golf lore, Bagger Vance is the story of a faded young hotshot (Matt Damon) whose glittering career peters out after he’s traumatized by his service in World War One. He descends into drink and inertia, until the local bigshots stage an exhibition match between titans Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen, and seek his participation as the only semi-viable local representative. He initially refuses, but then (for reasons that the film barely manages to articulate) changes his mind. Carrying his bag is the title character (Will Smith), who simply appears from the darkness one night, to begin instantly dispensing advice and insight, all with a detached twinkle and infinite patience and self-possession.

Redford doesn’t appear in the film (although the actor who plays Jones is a dead ringer for the younger RR) but in its pictorial splendor, its deliberate pace, its adherence to traditional values and general inoffensiveness, and in the amount of time it spends photographing grass, it’s squarely in line with most of the movie’s he’s directed. I just looked back at my review of his last film The Horse Whisperer, in June 1998. One of the greatest achievements of that film, I said, was that “even though we know Redford is directing it himself, and that he’s therefore personally responsible for taking a simple story and padding it out to almost three hours, largely by making his own character into some kind of mythic ideal of unpolluted masculinity, it doesn’t offend us as one of the more tasteless ego trips in recent cinema. This I suppose is the true mark of his skill: to stand before us as an icon without inciting revolt or revulsion.”

Happy caddy

Bagger Vance is much the same thing, except on this occasion it’s significantly more annoying (although at least it’s a bit shorter). The Horse Whisperer had a genuine interest in character, however woolly and self-indulgent. But I can hardly remember a “serious” film that showed so little curiosity in or regard for the complexity of human personality as Bagger Vance. Damon’s background is sketched for us in a long opening voice-over; we get a couple of scenes of his down-and-out state, then he decides to sign on to the golf tournament and from there it’s one big ride to renewal. The character is a complete cipher, a blank vessel with “Save me” written across his vacant forehead.

But the conception of Damon’s character is positively Shakespearean compared to that of the eponymous Bagger. It’s an (I suppose) amusing irony that Jada Pinkett Smith could be seen in screens in Spike Lee’s savage Bamboozled, where she’s at the heart of the film’s diatribe against reductive images of black culture, her husband Will happily occupies an utterly demeaning role in which he’s cast as a beaming sprite, channeling mystic wisdom and intuition. Southern golf clubs are famous for their late conversion (if it’s happened at all) to the cause of integration, but there’s not the slightest hint of this subject in Bagger Vance. When Damon suffers an abysmal start to the tournament, and the local bigwigs rail at Vance for his apparent negative influence on their intended golden boy, it’s very hard to imagine that their antipathy would have been so scrupulously expressed in entirely non-racial terms.

A perfect shot

Anyway, the film has no psychological tension whatsoever, and since the outcome is exactly the one that you’d imagine, there’s really not a lot to it. I wasn’t bored, but I had a lot of time dring the film to think over my stocks, and some stuff I have on my desk at work, and much more besides. One of the things I thought about was why so many films of supposedly serious intent dabble now in theologically unspecific but explicitly supernatural mysticism. I remember being amazed ten years ago when Field of Dreams got away with being so silly, but nowadays that movie would seem virtually sane. The Green Mile, for instance, with its Jesus Christ evocations attached to a dumb prisoner possessing the power of healing, was staggeringly pretentious and stupid – and it got an Oscar nomination! (Come to think of it, a black actor filled that role too – I’d like Spike Lee to investigate this trend). Pay it Forward verges on the same territory, not to mention that there’s another angel movie (although if the angels are Charlie’s, I’m OK with them).

I guess that if I had a different preconception in these matters I’d probably applaud the trend toward greater spirituality in movies. But when it’s expressed in such terms as golf clubs possessed by magic…well, you really have to be desperate for your soul to be stroked to get off on the stuff. The philosophy of Bagger Vance, if it can be termed as such, is summed up thus: “There’s a perfect shot out there…all we have to do is let it choose us.” Not only is this pretty useless as an insight into our existence – I’m told golf’s a bit harder than that as well.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Dying is easy

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2004)
New movies in the same weekend by Kevin Smith and the Coen Brothers – this should have been the best news for comedy since Pauly Shore stopped making movies (sorry - just thought I’d try that one out). Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. 
Jersey Girl
So if you take Smith, the deceptively low-brow seeming auteur of Clerks and Dogma, and subtract the flamboyant obscenity, the comic books and the frantic invention, we now know that you get something close to Edward Burns. Burns is the guy who had a brief run as a chronicler of blue-collar New Jersey (The Brothers McMullen won big at Sundance) before his luck ran out (as a director that is – he continues to do pretty well at scoring acting gigs). Smith’s new film Jersey Girl doesn’t have Jay and Silent Bob, and has not one use of the f-word, and that’s even with George Carlin in the cast. In some scenes you can viscerally feel Smith straining to write his way around his normal vocabulary.  He just about made it – but what was the point?
Apparently rooted in some way in Smith’s new contentment as a husband and father, Jersey Girl stars Ben Affleck as a career-loving Manhattan publicity consultant. He marries a book editor played by Jennifer Lopez (although it seems that we’ve been reading the Bennifer stories forever, the two actually met on the set of this film), and when she gets pregnant he grudgingly accepts the prospect of an adjustment in his work-life balance. But Lopez dies in childbirth, and he’s left with his agony and with a daughter he can’t comprehend. When a frustrated outburst costs him his job, he moves back to New Jersey with his father (Carlin), and eventually goes to work with the old man in the sanitation department. The years go by, the kid grows up to be seven, and Affleck adores her, but never stops thinking of getting back to Manhattan and into the game again...
As if in partial compensation for his self-imposed f-word embargo, Smith contrives a bizarre meeting between Affleck and Liv Tyler in which she, a video store clerk, harasses him about his renting a porno tape. This is just the most egregious of the movie’s many off moments. Sometimes – as in the weird choice of a scene from Sweeney Todd for the kid’s act at the school play – you think it might amount to something, but it never lasts. In the end, Will Smith, playing himself, turns up as the voice of wisdom, musing on the magic of fatherhood and on the wretched compromises that take you away from your kids. I’m only guessing here, but I think the parenting support system available to Will Smith might be a bit plusher than the norm – plush enough, maybe, that a director of serious intent could have looked elsewhere. As it is, Smith’s appearance seems quasi-ethereal and rather demeaning, like his role in The Legend of Bagger Vance.
(Kevin) Smith’s earlier movies were defiant in asserting his tastes and sensibilities – they had a swaggering take it or leave it quality about them. But on the basis of Jersey Girl, you can only assume he agrees with all those cracks about his own arrested development. His idea of an adult movie is to make himself into someone else. As if tired of the recurring jibes about his films’ undistinguished visual style, he hired Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters; McCabe and Mrs. Miller) – but the film’s resulting gloss only serves to emphasize its lack of personality. At the end of it, you feel that Smith’s in a similar spot to Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, agonizing over being superficial and about the meaning of it all, whereas God only wants him to concentrate on making funnier movies. Sadly, by the time Allen really took that advice on board, his skills had eroded. Smith’s skills were never at that level to begin with, which I’d say makes his next move rather critical.
The Ladykillers
The Coen brothers’ latest film The Ladykillers is another case of auteurs scoring below par. It’s a film of inventive, quirky bits and pieces (much better than any of the bits and pieces in Jersey Girl) that fail to coalesce into a whole. The film’s opening ten minutes hit you like random cuttings from a studio floor – a credit sequence built around garbage barges; a long stilted conversation in a sheriff’s office; Tom Hanks doing a weird accent; Marlon Wayans in a scene that could fit in a hundred other movies; an indescribable interlude involving a dog in a gas mask, and so it goes on. 
These early scenes set up a motley bunch of criminals, and the old lady whose basement they intend to use as a base for digging into a nearby vault. The film is a remake of a 1950’s British classic, and it’s hard to know why the Coens bothered. The movie never stops feeling fragmented – it doesn’t flow with anything close to the fluency of their best movies. Of course, their narratives have always been crammed and digressive – movies like Fargo and O!  Brother Where Art Thou meld a corkscrew sensibility with an approach to character that’s somehow both clinical and tolerant. When it works, it’s a dazzling act. But their second-tier movies tend to seem like creations where you instantly get half the joke and love it, but somehow can’t summon the energy to figure out the other half.


The Ladykillers comes out only six months after their last film, Intolerable Cruelty. That was a more unified effort than this one, but felt superficial next to their best work – for one thing, it was set in Hollywood, which at this late stage seems like a tired satirical target. The new film’s quick arrival, the presence of Hanks, the general sloppiness, and the presence of a Gospel soundtrack that seems too stridently designed to match the success of the O! Brother bluegrass soundtrack, all seem to smack of what Hollywood calls “product.” And although it’s often funny, I found myself laughing more at Wayans’ trademarked profanity than anything else. Which gives The Ladykillers something in common with Scary Movie.

Talking of auteurs, but no longer of comedy, Neil Young picks up his sporadic film- directing sideline with Greendale, a muddled story of small town mishaps set to a nine-track song suite. The film is grainy and haphazard, taking potshots at some identifiable targets like John Ashcroft, and conveying no end of suspicion about the modern media, before ending up on an expansive be-one-with-nature note. The film is dully literal-minded – the images generally merely illustrate what’s plain from the lyrics, although there’s the odd bit of surrealism in there too. But compared to the two films reviewed above, Young’s is at least intimately faithful to his muse.

No sunshine

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2000)

It was director Nicholas Ray who reportedly said, “If it were all in the script, why make the movie?” Not many movies nowadays provide any particular reason to think back to that remark (today’s directors are mostly showmen, if they’re anything at all), but Istvan Szabo’s Sunshine is an unwelcome exception. Here’s a film that provides not one solitary moment of visual imagination, not one memorable flare of the director’s craft. The picture is not an ounce better than its script, and given that the writing appears little more inspired than that of the average corporate training video, that doesn’t give us much. And it’s three hours long. Sad to say, this monumental mediocrity is a Canadian co-production, nominated for several hundred Genie awards.


The film follows three generations of a Hungarian Jewish family, through the First and Second World Wars and the subsequent upheavals. Ralph Fiennes plays the most prominent male members of each generation. The family passes through various stages of upheaval and suffering, losing sight of its inherent strength and tradition before finally finding peace with its own history.

The story winds through some of the key events of our century (a family member dies in a concentration camp; another is a leading protestor against the Russian occupancy in 1956 Budapest), but makes little attempt to convey either an emotional or an intellectual sense of those events. There are a few flatly-staged crowd scenes, but the action consists mainly of conversations in rooms, with archival newsreel footage liberally interspersed. I can’t tell you how irritated I got at the film’s continual use of Fiennes’ voice-over to tell us what happened between one scene and the next (especially as the events he describes almost invariably sound more interesting than the stuff actually put on screen). This could theoretically have been an interesting artistic strategy, perhaps exploring the impotence of individual gestures against the crushing power of political and institutional change, but it certainly doesn’t function here as such. It’s more as if they set out to film a vast, sweeping novel, but with a shoestring budget that meant most of the good stuff had to be cannibalized or glossed over.

Lost investment

Unfortunately, I understand it’s not a low-budget film at all. A couple of months ago I cited Giuseppe Tornatore’s Legend of 1900 – the saga of a piano player who lives his whole life on an ocean liner – as the epitome of a certain kind of lavish, commercially doomed art film. Tornatore’s film, whatever its faults, seemed to me to follow its own muse. But Sunshine is as off-puttingly calculating as a Bond movie. It means to make us glow with its humanity, to make us gasp at its scope. It has the requisite amount of Euro-style nudity, scattered carefully through the film. It has the speeches, the recriminations, the tragic ironies. Surely the subject matter must have meant something to Hungarian director Szabo (best-known for his Oscar-winning Mephisto), but on this evidence he’s artistically decrepit, phoning it in.

Of course, it’s not as if one salvages nothing from the experience. The last third of the film is moderately successful in tracing the moral decay of the Communist takeover (an appearance by William Hurt, more nuanced than the rest of the cast put together, helps). The death of one of the Fiennes characters is chilling, as is the depiction of the family sitting around the radio, pouncing on every shard of hope, as the Jewish exclusionary laws are announced. But ultimately, there’s no compelling reason for the film to exist. It doesn’t have the artistic aspirations of, say, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (which came to my mind not least because the recreation of Prague ’68 in that film is so vastly superior to the equivalent set-pieces in this work); it has no commitment to revealing character, being entirely lacking in spontaneity; it’s not really interested in illustrating politics or social change (I often found myself, during the plodding exposition of escalating anti-Semitism, longing for Oliver Stone). And the poor shareholders of Alliance Atlantis won’t even have the consolation of knowing they squandered their money for the greater Canadian good – on a three-hour bio of Rene Levesque for instance, or of Peter Gzowski, or even Mike Duffy.

The Cider House Rules

By comparison, Lasse Hallstrom’s The Cider House Rules is a film of studiously limited ambition, yet nothing in Sunshine sends as much of a transgressive shiver down the spine, as Cider House’s unflinching embrace of what’s pejoratively termed “abortion on demand.” In this adaptation of John Irving’s book, Michael Caine (excellent) plays an overseer of a remote New England orphanage, fervently devoted both to his poignantly-portrayed changes (“Princes of Maine, Kings of New England”) and to his secondary abortion practice. Tobey Maguire (sweet, but a bit bland) is the orphanage-raised protégé who rejects the path Caine’s designated for him, and goes off to see the world.

The film is generally much like an afternoon siesta in a Maine meadow – pleasant enough as long as you don’t have too much else on your to do list. As it goes on, the intended theme seems to be about self-discovery through gentle myth-making, about tearing up the rules – but this is all rather less than persuasive from a film that takes so few chances itself. The oddly restrained climax certainly doesn’t hit home. But The Cider House Rules stands apart from mere travelogue if only because of its treatment of abortion, in which respect the filmmakers must consider themselves very lucky not to be attracting more adverse publicity than they are. Maybe, given its box-office failure, the habitual protestors have finally learned that disdain is the best weapon.

Any Given Sunday

Talking as I was of Oliver Stone, I also saw his new film Any Given Sunday, a pro-football epic that Stone puts across like a sequel to JFK; any given scene groans under the director’s hunger for complexity and expansiveness. But even if his subject-matter were as compelling as that of the earlier movie, his instincts certainly aren’t – the kinetic style often seems borderline ludicrous here, and works against any sort of dramatic differentiation. The main plotline, contrasting the weathered coach (Al Pacino, with a couple of good locker-room speeches) and the young hotshot, sputters along to a climax so unconvincing that you could accuse the film’s last twenty minutes of dissing the grander ambitions of its first two hours. A case perhaps for a conspiracy theorist, once he’s finished investigating how Sunshine got made.

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.