(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2005)
A first batch of reviews of this season’s big movies...
Mike Nichols’ Closer was the perfect pre-Christmas middlebrow package, tailor-made to allow any number of think pieces about the sexual zeitgeist. But I must confess that for me, the film failed to spark any meaningful reactions. Based on a play by Patrick Marber, it follows four characters in modern-day London, moving through every permutation of love (except the same-sex ones, although I suppose you can read a streak of latent homosexuality into it) and hate. The characters span every emotion from joy to neediness to anger and bilious self-righteousness; they're often at their most savage when accusing others of transgressions that they’ve recently committed themselves. You can certainly see how on stage this would have generated a draining sense of animalistic claustrophobia. But on film the structure seems contrived; it’s all too easy to write this off as a nasty self-contained anecdote of limited relevance to the rest of our lives. Nichols’ smooth, ingratiating handling just renders it all the more dispensable. The star cast (Julia Roberts. Jude Law, Natalie Portman) are all OK, but it’s Clive Owen who’s justly receiving the most attention – he’s the only one of the four to suggest real savage depths, whereas the others seem mostly like prisoners of circumstance.
House of Flying Daggers
Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers also has just four speaking parts of any consequence, although the film sweeps forward so grandly that one might not realize it. It’s Zhang’s second straight kung fu epic after Hero, and has a more mature, reflective tone – with hindsight it makes the earlier film seem hyperactive. In this one the action sequences (also generally more intimate and earthbound than in Hero, although with some stunning exceptions) alternate with long sequences of dance or intimacy; the soft green of spring predominates where the earlier film’s colour schemes spanned the seasons. The plot involves a government plan to pierce the heart of the rebel Flying Daggers by having a young policeman ingratiate himself with a blind girl who’s the daughter of the rebels’ former leader; it has numerous twists and turns, but these too seem relaxed and incremental after the dramatic reinventions of Hero. On the whole, less is more – the film is consistently beguiling, although it doesn’t tease the senses or the imagination as fully as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, still the genre’s mainstream high-water mark.
Million Dollar Baby
A couple of years ago, after Space Cowboys and Absolute Power and True Crime and Blood Work, I thought Eastwood must finally be winding down, content to stay within familiar parameters. Now, after the astonishing one-two punch of Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, he again seems close to the summit of American directors. Mystic River translated the cold moral certainty of his classic persona into a complex examination of guilt and innocence, fully understood by the film as relative rather than absolute states; at times, it had a transcendent intensity and sense of purpose.
The new film is equally as engrossing, although it’s not as obviously ambitious. Eastwood plays the manager of an old-style boxing gym, and Morgan Freeman is the sidekick who helps look after the place. The two circle each other in a sparring developed over decades, but Eastwood’s daily visits to mass and his playful taunting of the priest evidence an unresolved yearning (the movie refers to but never explains a long-estranged daughter). A young woman, played by Hilary Swank, starts coming to the gym and asking Eastwood to be her personal trainer – he turns her down flat, but with Freeman’s help she gradually wins him over, and he makes a devastating, title-contending fighter of her.
The film shows no shame with boxing clichés – Freeman’s voice on the soundtrack lodges enough homilies to populate an entire genre. The characters are essentially stock figures, and much of the trajectory is familiar. But Million Dollar Baby seems to understand these mechanics more fully and fluently than almost any other film I’ve seen. Boxing is of course an increasingly marginalized sport, seemingly too savage and resistant to contemporary styling to sit comfortably in the mainstream, but still fascinating for its immediacy and effortless symbolism. Eastwood’s film is an eloquent study in how boxing’s strange mechanics and culture redefine the three main characters, a theme shaped and deepened through multiple subtleties.
His customary low-key but fluidly minimal style makes for a handsome work, with darkness framing the edges of most frames. The style is perfectly suited to its subject – you get the feeling that the light of the boxing ring is their only arena of possible redemption, and there’s something beautiful in how Eastwood circles the perimeter during her fights, intervening at time-outs to patch up her cuts and to explain to her (as if near-omnipotent for all his limitations) the opponent’s psychology.
The three actors are all excellent – Swank, already a revelation in Boys Don’t Cry, zooms back after a run of indifferent roles with another revelation of an entirely different kind. Million Dollar Baby isn’t as ambitious as Mystic River and I suppose its impact is a little more localized – it’s so recognizable as a genre piece that you can’t help but focus on the aesthetic styling. Which helps you realize how long Eastwood has been moving in this direction. In the 70’s, The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Gauntlet were both great genre entertainments, seeped in his shorthand view of character, but already exhibiting unusual richness, elaboration and if anything excessive mythmaking. Eastwood stagnated a bit in the 80’s, made an amazing comeback in the early 90’s, and now stands bigger than ever. Actors all rave about his sense of economy, how his sets seem more adult and relaxed than any others (Million Dollar Baby apparently only started filming in June, exhibiting a speed to completion that makes all other directors look bloated). The focus and relaxation shines through in the films. Eastwood’s authoritarian streak is still problematic, and his films don’t yield the revelations of the greatest artists, but he’s a fascinating phenomenon, and the new film is a thrilling experience.
Talking of directors whose self-absorbed second-rateness is shown up by Eastwood's speed and economy, here's a new film by James L. Brooks - his first since 1997's As Good as it Gets. To say the least, the wait doesn't seem to manifest itself in the quality of the product. The film follows a young Mexican immigrant and single mother (played by Paz Vega) who takes a job with a plush, neurosis-ridden Los Angeles family (Adam Sandler plays the best chef in America - no, I couldn't buy it either - and Tea Leoni is somewhat amazing - maybe that's a compliment, maybe not - as his high-strung wife); there's some culture-clashing and assimilation and an understated affinity between Sandler and Vega. This is all easy to watch in an anonymous, glossy kind of way, but the film is ultimately quite incoherent, retrenching into an apparent notion of truth to one's origins that doesn't sit comfortably with all the wallowing in high-end lifestyles. It feels as though some crucial piece were missing, as though it were cut out of some longer, more impressionistic and solipsistic musing...not that I would ask to see any more of it.