“Fall movies wither at the box office,” pronounced a recent headline in Variety, noting a series of recent high-profile disappointments. Elizabeth: The Golden Age, In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, Things we Lost in the Fire, Rendition, Reservation Road – they’re all financial duds. Even the Brad Pitt Jesse James movie didn’t do anything. It all looked so promising when the local press was drooling over half of these movies in their Festival gala spots. And these are all serious-minded movies, the kind of thing people always claim to want more of. Makes it rather depressing that the fall’s biggest hit was The Game Plan, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (I missed that one).
There were certain weekends this fall when four or more heavyweight movies opened on the same day, and then the next weekend you’d get three more, and on it went. How could Rendition, Things we Lost in the Fire and Gone Baby Gone all possibly occupy the spotlight at the same time? Doesn’t Hollywood know about the escalating fragmentation and shrinking attention span of the mass audience? Maybe not, for it’s amazing how cinema manages to preserve its privileged place within the cultural infrastructure.
Even an unheralded film playing on one small screen at the Carlton can count on being reviewed in all the papers that matter here. TV, by contrast, is treated with the broadest of strokes – we get pages of barely comprehensible (and yet incomplete) program grids, along with some (usually banal and arbitrary) “Critic’s Choices.” This even though the most obscure TV show gets a bigger audience than the Carlton-dwelling movie.
If things were starting from scratch, it would not be this way. Maybe we would be more laidback about celebrating the new because it’s new, and more respectful of the old (I’d argue that the availability in recent weeks of films like Viaggio in Italia and The Red Desert on late night cable - Silver Screen (channel 320) – was more culturally significant than any of these new movies, but you really had to go out of your way to find out about that). And without preexisting assumptions and vested interests, cinematic distribution (a pretty arbitrary mechanism, certainly driven as much by commerce as culture) would lose its significance as a trigger for elevated media coverage. So Hollywood’s tumble of “product,” although perhaps based in part on some brand of naïve optimism, starts to seem arrogant– why should new movies occupy that much space in our lives?
Among all this high-ambition debris, it’s almost quaint when a film like Sleuth turns up. It’s hard to imagine anyone thought the 1972 Laurence Olivier-Michael Caine film needed remaking. I guess it occurred to someone, like the way my dog sometimes fixates on eating a dirty napkin he finds in the park, with the difference being of course that the dog only needs to bamboozle me rather than dozens of financiers and artists (he has a better success ratio than I should admit to). Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. They got Nobel-prize winning author Harold Pinter to write the script, esteemed multi-hyphenate (although, even his greatest fan will have to concede, less esteemed than he was, now that the young genius thing has worn off) Kenneth Branagh to direct it, and Michael Caine to return to the material, 35 years on.
The New Sleuth
Caine now plays the prosperous older man, with Jude Law in there as his younger rival. The premise, you recall, is that the younger man is having an affair with the other’s wife, and comes to his sumptuous country house to talk about it. The husband, a writer of thrillers, sets the conversation into game-playing mode, leading to a battle of attempts to scare the bejesus out of each other. The suspense, if any, lies in how serious they are about all this.
I can’t remember the original very well – I think I liked it well enough at the time, but as I say, the material has served its historic purpose and need not be bothered again. Unless, that is, you have something really smart in mind. Pinter, the master of acerbic ambiguity, shakes up the script a fair bit, in particular by making Caine’s house into a technological marvel of surveillance and computer-control, which might theoretically enhance the vein of alienated self-loathing implicit in the original. Maybe that could have been a springboard for something half-interesting.
But as executed, the new Sleuth is an utter waste of celluloid and the audience’s time. From start to finish, there’s not the slightest clue about why any of this matters. The first movie, directed by veteran Joseph L. Mankiewicz, at least offered the pleasure of watching two heavyweights play off against each other. Branagh consistently chooses terrible, ugly camera angles that distance you from what’s going on without any compensating payoff. The absurdly over designed set, suggesting the values of a 70’s pimp (with better electronics) more than a latter-day country gentleman, likewise seems to interest the director more than his actors.
Which is the saddest aspect of it: Branagh surely likes and sympathizes with actors, yet you never pick up any sense of a director alive and engaged behind the camera, collaborating with his performers to produce something vibrant and distinctive. The movie is too full of itself simply to be fun, and too vacuous to yield anything else. It’s a bad film, and should never have been made.
But it was made – it was even a gala at the Film Festival. I know they need to keep that red carpet stocked with celebrities for a week, but if there was ever a limit, this should have been well beyond it. Sleuth would only possibly work if star power was still what it was (assuming Caine and Law are even really stars, which I’m not sure has been proven); if people went to the movies just to go, because they wouldn’t think of doing anything else. But in the challenging real-world environment, the industry can’t afford to put out work as complacently wretched as this. Truly, it will only hasten the end.
Gone Baby Gone
Ben Affleck has made his directing debut with Gone Baby Gone, an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel about a child abducted from a blue-collar Boston neighborhood. Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris are the investigating cops, and Casey Affleck is a local small-time detective called in by the family to help out. The early scenes, soaking in the sleazy local colour, are quite gripping, and the film ultimately works its way to a highly intriguing moral quandary and closing scene. To get there though, you pass through long stretches of increasingly confusing and unconvincing plot complications. Overall, you come out ahead, but it’s far from the intensity and sense of purpose of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, from the same author’s story. Of course, that wasn’t exactly Eastwood’s first directing job. But at least there’s no doubt here that Affleck was thinking and trying and giving a damn.