(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2006)
Most critics regarded Harsh Times, by David Ayer (who wrote Training Day) as a minor entry in the urban drugs and violence genre, but I was really surprised how much I admired it. Christian Bale and Freddy Rodriguez drive endlessly around scuzzy LA, supposedly looking for jobs to mollify their partners, but more preoccupied with getting high, making money however it comes, and just creating mayhem. It’s a long and somewhat monotonous film, but gradually reveals itself as a piercing, scathing study of two woefully inadequate men whose irresponsibility might trip into frightening violence. That Bale’s character is a troubled veteran going for a job with the Department of Homeland Security gives it an effective broader undertone. In many ways Harsh Times is contrived and fanciful, but it’s a rare film that can communicate any fresh perspective on macho turmoil, and Bale gives one of the year’s most mesmerizing performances.
Fast Food Nation
Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation is an interesting narrative derived from Eric Schlosser’s devastating expose of the want-fries-with-that industry. I was never a big fast food guy in the first place, but I have to report that Schlosser’s book polished off whatever minor presence I ever had in the customer base. The film may not be quite as effective, despite a final sequence that brings home the visceral nastiness of what underlies it all, for the tone here is mostly benumbed, as if crushed by the industry’s immense scale and the impossibility of more than token gestures against it.
There are three main plot strands. One follows a head office marketing executive (Greg Kinnear) investigating allegations of contaminated meat from a supply plant; the second depicts illegal immigrants who keep the factory wheels turning while being psychologically and financially exploited; and the third shows a lower middle class family whose wellbeing is likely permanently intertwined with the industry, indirectly if not directly, whether they like it or not. At times the construction seems untidy and unsubtle, and you feel that the wildly talented Linklater is being unnecessarily self-effacing; I also wished he could have pushed the canvas a little wider (the political dimension, for example, is mostly absent). But you might find yourself thinking afterwards that the despairing, almost eerie undertone is rather brave.
A Guide to Recognizing your Saints was written and directed by Dito Montiel, based on his own memories of growing up in New York in the 1980’s. The fact that Chazz Palminteri plays his father may tell you all you need to know about the film’s frequently familiar tone, although it is effective at conveying a sense of turbulence and regret.
Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy is a small but highly effective study of two old friends, now mostly grown apart, on an overnight camping trip. One of the men has greater aspirations for the friendship than the other, and although the film is spare and minimal, virtually every shot or line of dialogue is meaningful, creating a moving portrait of the conflicting burdens of moving ahead, and of being left behind.
The History Boys
The History Boys is a lightning fast filming of the hit play that won this year’s Tony for best play and actor (Richard Griffiths) after initially knocking them dead in London. It’s set in early 80’s Northern England, where a group of teachers tutor eight star pupils shooting for places in Oxford or Cambridge. The movie is deliberately drab looking, but the language and the ideas are so consistently eloquent and provocative that you feel an enormous sense of transcendence. It’s often anachronistic and idealistic (a few critics have questioned whether the boys would be singing Rogers and Hart songs rather than tuning into the Human League or New Order, and their combination of rough-edged laddishness and wildly well-read eloquence strains even theatrical license) but I saw it mostly as a happy pragmatic fantasy, in which the malleable view of history and learning ultimately extends into a highly fluid view of sexuality as well. Crammed with aphorisms and metaphors, filtered through just about perfect performances, it’s a valuable record of what must have been an even more striking experience on stage.
Emilio Estevez’s Bobby follows a bunch of characters milling round a California hotel on the night Robert F Kennedy got shot in 1968. The film was disparaged in some quarters as a cousin to Fantasy Island or The Love Boat, with mostly fading stars (Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, Anthony Hopkins and many more) acting out conventional personal dramas: affairs, weddings, fears of mortality, alcoholism – it’s all here, competently written and performed competently but never coming close to anything distinctive or revealing. The point seems to be something about brotherhood and the importance of moving past violence. Estevez’ ambition far exceeds his achievement, but at least it’s smooth and watchable (and of course achingly sincere) – better than The Love Boat, but worse than a whole lot else on TV.
Pedro Almodovar’s Volver continues his evolution into a benevolent, almost cuddly mainstream auteur the like of which hardly exists any more. This celebration of female adaptability stars Penelope Cruz in Sophia Loren-like mode as a struggling, earthy Madrid housewife who’s hit by everything at once: old secrets coming back to life, family crises galore, all framed by a loose network of women doing what it takes to get by. It’s all dressed up like a chocolate box, but as always with Almodovar, the material is remarkably raw at times – how many directors could throw in a revelation of incest with such limited histrionics? The film is a joyous, superbly controlled melting pot – spirituality and sexuality, austerity and full bloom, the murky past jostling against the vivid present. Men hardly figure in the film’s scheme, except as dispensable bastards – a contrivance that contributes to my overall feeling that this ranks below highpoints like Talk to Me. Still great stuff though.
Recently I’ve been finding myself at the Bloor Cinema more often in years, reflecting an excellent series of Toronto premieres - Mutual Appreciation, Old Joy, and then Bent Hamer’s Factotum. Factotum is certainly the least of those three, but it’s a highly engaging viewing experience. It’s based on a novel by Charles Bukowski, depicting a fictionalized version of himself drifting between jobs and women and from drink to drink, all of which somehow powers his writing jones. Matt Dillon channels the young Jack Nicholson in the lead role – laid back often to the point of catatonia, impudent, sometimes brutally violent and self-righteous. It’s a very entertaining stylized creation, and the film pretty much takes his lead. But compared to Marco Ferreri’s Bukowski adaptation Tales of Ordinary Madness, which I watched again recently, Factotum doesn’t feel sufficiently cohesive. It’s always a mystery how the guy holds it together; we don’t glean much sense of what it is he’s writing; and the film feels sparse, almost abstract, lacking any real low-life flavour. But it’s also full of striking, often funny moments.