Sunday, October 9, 2011
More Summer Movies
(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2004)
Mopping up some summer movies I haven’t covered already.
M. Night Shyamalan’s wonder boy reputation took a big hit with his latest film, widely derided as the occasion when the magic deserted him. It’s about an isolated village, apparently in the 19th century, where unseen creatures, lurking in the surrounding woods, threaten the bucolic lifestyle. The village elders have negotiated an uneasy truce with these creatures, but there are signs that it’s breaking down. And what to do when people start getting sick, and the only medicine is in the much feared ‘towns” on the far side of the woods? William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver are among the elders; Joaquin Phoenix and a new actress Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter, and the best thing in the movie) are among the youths.
I thought Shyamalan’s last film Signs was absolutely horrible – pretentious, arrogant, self-regarding. So The Village, by being merely slow and silly, actually represents something of an upturn in my view. The all-important “twist” is predictable in general if not specific terms, and isn’t very effectively dramatized in any event (the final scenes made me think in a certain way of Blazing Saddles, which can’t have been the intention). But Shyamalan’s portrayal of the town, with its genial but spartan philosophy, is at least fairly cohesive, and the movie does have the odd point of aesthetic interest – displaced evocations of fairy tales, the oddly evasive way in which Hurt is shot throughout. Basically, it’s the same thing you’ve seen a million times – one day a guy’s over praised, the next it swings too far the other way. Average it all out, and Shyamalan is a talented filmmaker with too big an ego and too few worthwhile ideas.
Previously unseen footage of Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and The Band makes this documentary a fun viewing experience; when I saw it, several members of the audience were having too much fun, whistling and shouting out encouragement at Joplin in particular. The footage comes from a series of 1970 rock festivals that played Toronto, Winnipeg and Calgary, traveling between destinations on a chartered CN train. The musicians partied it up big time, at one point running out of booze and forcing an unplanned stop in Saskatoon to restock. It was evident early on that the whole affair would be a financial disaster, and this seems to have liberated everyone involved, pushing everyone into cheerfully fatalistic excess. This is one of the rare films that’s actually too short – at 90 minutes (including a lot of contemporary talking head stuff) you don’t see that much of the performers, but the technical quality is surprisingly good, and it’s an instant entry in the must-see annals of rock cinema (maybe just behind Woodstock and The Last Waltz).
Maria Full of Grace
Joshua Marston’s scrupulous account of a young Colombian woman pulled into the drug trade as a mule (carrying cocaine-filled pellets inside her stomach on a flight to New York) is sociologically fascinating, rivetingly depicting the details of how such things happen. The film presents these events cleanly, in a bright, confident lighting style that largely avoids genre clichés, and the main actress is compelling. Aesthetically it’s a bit less interesting, with the slogan “It’s what’s inside that counts,” prominently displayed on a wall in the closing scene, capping off a series of connections on internalizing: she swallows drugs; she’s carrying a baby; she’s full of grace; ultimately her personal strength and sense of purpose allows her to transcend the limits of her situation. It’s a bit too idealistic and well, American, in how it gravitates toward individual boosterism.
The Manchurian Candidate
Jonathan Demme’s return to form (you could say he’s been drifting ever since The Silence of the Lambs in 1991) stamps a sense of directorial authority from the very start, and never lets go. His remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic about a plot to subvert the US presidency through mind control is sometimes knowingly anachronistic (it’s been a long time since we saw a political convention where the vice presidential nominee was in any doubt), and the details of the conspiracy sometimes bog down a bit, but the mood is perfectly sustained and Demme weaves in a mesmerizing collection of asides on disintegrating society and the escalating cynicism of politics. With a perfect cast (led by Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep), the movie is unquestionably a gleeful contrivance, but with unusual resonance and attention to detail.
A Home At The End Of The World
Michael Mayer’s adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel tracks a couple of boyhood friends who follow each other from suburban Cleveland to New York and beyond; one is promiscuously gay, the other isn’t, and their relationship keeps evolving and shifting, avoiding easy categories. The film is exceptionally genial, with enjoyable if soft-centered performances from Colin Farrell, Robin Wright Penn and Sissy Spacek, but the longer it goes on, the more its liberalism and fluid view of motivation start seeming like its sole raison d’etre; and while the life styles and structures on view may be unconventional, the dialogue and film craft certainly aren’t. I was surprised how much it got to me at times though.
Michael Mann’s thriller is a little disappointing because, well, it’s Michael Mann. Heat and The Insider were two of the best American films of the 90’s, but Collateral is clearly a genre piece, albeit polished until it dazzles. The best is at the very start, as LA cab driver Jamie Foxx talks to passenger Jada Pinkett Smith – the frame gleams, and there’s an early hint of the kind of synthesis (simultaneously perfectly grounded and yet consciously mythic) that sustained the other films. Then Tom Cruise enters the scene, as a hitman who commandeers Foxx’s cab to drive him between a series of hits. Both actors are excellent, the interplay between them strikes fascinating cadences, and the film is consistently creative in plotting and presentation. But its efficiency as a thriller ultimately works against its effectiveness as anything else.
Zach Braff, from TV’s Scrubs, wrote and directed this innocuous comedy, and stars in it as an actor who comes back home to New Jersey for his mother’s funeral; he meets up with old pals, falls in love, all on the way to the usual life lessons. The film’ received much praise, but I found it completely tedious. The potentially funny bits are almost all reminiscent of funnier bits in the recent Napoleon Dynamite; the characters all speak either in non-sequiturs or clichés; and it doesn’t even have much of a sense of place. At this point in film history, such stuff is so very very familiar.