Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas movies, part three



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2005)

A Very Long Engagement

My favourite movie experience of the holiday season came in New York, where a theatre near Greenwich Village was playing Jacques Demy’s 1971 Donkey Skin. The film is a musical (like Demy’s best known work The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) , a fairy tale about a princess, played by Catherine Deneuve, who must flee her kingdom and work as a scullion, disguised beneath the donkey skin, to find her prince. I loved every minute of it. I won’t spend too much space on a film that can’t readily be seen here, but Demy had a wonderful sensibility: Donkey Skin demonstrates both an utter conviction in the story’s screwy inner logic, and a contemporary awareness (albeit a quirky one) of foibles and complexities. The film suggests he would have had trouble in the digital age - you get the feeling he loved the immediacy of his props and devices (people in simple masks; horses painted red or blue), and it’s an exceptionally earthy and immediate evocation of a magical kingdom. The film also has numerous allusions to Jean Cocteau, placing it in a glorious tradition of involved poetic cinema.

Donkey Skin came to mind several times when I was watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s new film – sadly not as a direct point of comparison but as a measure of what Jeunet’s film lacks. A Very Long Engagement is the follow-up to Amelie, a wildly imaginative, whimsical crowd-pleaser, and one of the archetypal foreign films for people who don’t like foreign films. The new film also stars Audrey Tautou, but it’s a more sombre effort overall. She plays a woman whose beloved is declared killed in World War One, but she doesn’t believe it, and launches her own investigation to obtain certainty. The film weaves together a substantial number of subplots and secondary characters, sometimes using the Amelie approach of shooting off on a tangent; it’s consistently handsome if not beautiful, contrasting a pristine vision of rural France with grimly vivid visions of the trenches.

But I never found any way into the film. I didn’t once feel any of the immediacy and involvement that made Donkey Skin so beguiling. In that film you feel Demy alongside the camera, personally guiding his vision, whereas you get no feeling of Jeunet other than as a disembodied presence, hidden behind layers of computers. The central character is barely defined except by her very determination, and the film takes from her an abstracted sense of sheer momentum. As such it no doubt reflects a self-aggrandizing French fantasy of feminine indomitibility – it touches both the endurance of cultural tentpoles and the transcendence of resourcefulness over institutional stone-walling. None of this is very interesting as a theme though, and for all its assurance, the film only reflects a glossy aesthetic as familiar now in European as in American movies. You might enjoy the movie, but there’s no conceivable reason to watch this rather than any classic work. Donkey Skin is merely the one I had in my mind that day, but then later on I watched Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, which beat the pants off it too.

Red Lights

Cedric Kahn’s unheralded thriller opened in the Carlton on Christmas Eve, which against so much high-profile competition seems like a ticket to oblivion. That’s a shame, because the film is much more involving than most of the American movies currently on show. It stars the unprepossessing Jean-Pierre Darroussin as an insurance middle manager on a road trip with his higher-achieving wife (Carole Bouquet). He’s drinking wildly, picking fights with her; as night falls and his recklessness increases the point-of-view shots of the road are already edge-of-the-seat tense. When he stops at a bar she takes off, leaving him a note that she’s taking the train; he picks up a passenger, and the suspense escalates.

The film ultimately ties its various strands together, in a way that might be regarded as a vindication of the put-upon male; Bouquet’s metaphorical wings are distinctly clipped, and the final sequence sees Darroussin in control, his chaotic mental state having resulted in a display of potency that magically pays off for him. But this can also be read as a displaced fantasy, a bucolic sun-baked dream of redemption contrasting with the precisely life-defining and –diminishing architecture that plays under the opening credits. The movie weaves in some semi-fantastic encounters reminiscent of David Lynch, along with some bourgeois squirming worthy of Chabrol. I haven’t seen any of Kahn’s previous work, and one could wish for Red Lights to go a little further, but it’s enough to mark him as yet another more than promising European filmmaker.

In Good Company

Another tale of male self-actualization, Paul Weitz’s gentle comedy is an easy pleasure. Dennis Quaid plays a 52-year-old advertising executive who after a corporate takeover suddenly finds himself reporting to a hotshot 26-year-old, played by Topher Grace. Further, his wife is pregnant, financial challenges are piling up, and then Grace starts dating Quaid’s daughter (Scarlett Johansson). It’s a mellow movie, mostly conventional in its approach to characterization and mood and pacing, but it benefits tremendously from the actors. Grace gives an outstandingly off-kilter performance, and after this and p.s. seems like a major prospect (the only question is whether enough scripts exist to accommodate him). Quaid is nuanced and incredibly interesting  (see comments on Flight of the Phoenix last week).

The film takes a conventional populist approach towards business, relentlessly mocking and exposing the heartlessness of the new media synergy-obsessed paradigm and its trappings, and holding up the old-fashioned virtues of honest transactions based on things that matter. Coming from a Hollywood studio this seems suspect, but the ultimate trajectory of the characters is surprisingly graceful (each moves along the spectrum of self-awareness without necessarily ending up exactly where you’d expect), and earns the movie considerable goodwill. Weitz also made American Pie and About a Boy and seems to be following a graceful ascent both of subtlety and substance.

Meet the Fockers

Jay Roach’s sequel to his 2000 hit Meet the Parents has quite a bit less comic invention, and makes very little sense as a whole, but coasts along thanks to a dream cast – or at least it would have been a dream cast circa 1976 – Robert de Niro and Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand, in her first film since 1981 that she didn’t also direct. She’s extremely natural and earthy and appealing here, confirming my thesis that through over-deliberation she’s long been her own worst enemy, cinematically speaking. Hoffman is also surprisingly light and peppy, whereas as for de Niro...well, I’ve long given up trying to understand what makes him tick. See him hosting Saturday Night Live recently, for the second time? Singing with Kermit the frog, dressing up as an old woman, delivering a bunch of “Islamic terrorist” names that sound like toilet jokes...he looked miserable and out of it (was there ever a host so dependent on his cue cards?) but there he was anyway. No wonder Scorsese doesn’t use him any more. Anyway, back to Meet the Fockers – given the cast, much of it resembles a loose “hanging out” kind of feeling, which is enough to get by.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Doing it my way



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2009)

I had “Family Day” off, but my wife didn’t, so I devoted most of the day to watching Abel Gance’s 1921 silent epic La Roue. I’d recorded it from Turner Classic Movies months ago, and had been saving it for exactly such an occasion, because it lasts over four hours. I started around nine thirty and finished some seven hours later, having taken breaks to walk the dog, make lunch, answer emails, and do whatever else popped into my head. It was a great day. The film, built around a railroad engineer who falls in love with his own adopted daughter, is often dazzling, although of course a lot of it is hard to relate to now, other than as a record of a vanished cultural time. It refuses to end, adding one climactic embellishment upon another, but you sense that as a sign of Gance’s massively inventive delight in a then still relatively new medium.

Watching movies

Some people (see David Bordwell’s website as a wonderful example) love to track the development of the medium as we know it, scrutinizing cinema’s earliest surviving works for examples of shot-reverse shots, camera movements, or emerging psychological complexity. I admire that scholarship but it’s not really where my own heart lies; I suppose I’m sloppier in my appreciation. The very approach I took to watching La Roue, forcing it to coexist with the day’s other logistics and whims, probably rules me out as a serious spectator. Fair enough – we all do the best we can.

Actually, most films I watch at home don’t even get that good a deal: typically I’ll start watching a movie one evening, spend 45 minutes or an hour on it, maybe finish it a couple of days later, start right away on another one. A lot of people tell me they couldn’t watch films that way, and I’m not saying it’s ideal (to state only the most obvious reservation, it does increase the likelihood of getting confused about basic plot and character points), but if I only watched movies when I had two interrupted hours available, my consumption would plummet. So I proceed (as with various other things in life actually) on the premise that pragmatic forward progress beats waiting around for an unattainable ideal.

Recently though I’m finding that this fragmented kind of viewing, rather than being a necessary accommodation, is actually tending to become my preferred mode of movie watching. I’m just getting used to doing it that way. This intersects with other things. I love film just as much, but I’m progressively erecting a higher and higher bar regarding what I actually pay to see at the theaters. This year I’ve just gone once a week on average, which I know far outpaces the average viewer, but in the past it’s often been more like three or four times a week. Movies that would easily have made my viewing cut even twelve months ago (Last Chance Harvey, The International, The Necessities of Life) now don’t even strike me as next-year cable catch-ups.

Watching Che

It’s easy to be seduced by the artful marketing, and by all the reporting of the weekend box office results as serious “news”, into thinking Taken or He’s just not that into you are cultural events of some kind (rather than straightforward, calculated commercial products, like new cookie flavours or rebranded toilet paper); I’m certainly susceptible to being seduced myself. But I think I’ve reached a tipping point now, because the history of cinema is so deep and so rich, and (to my immense delight!) I have so much of it right here on my shelves, or available through the digital package, that it virtually always calls out louder than the passing appeal of the current new fad.

Added to that, movie theaters are too often annoying (the only locations where the saying ‘hell is other people’ regularly pops back into my head) and then, like everyone else, I’m into spending less anyway. And we moved to a new condo, and I really like hanging out here. And our old dog appreciates our company more and more. See what a hopeless case this is turning into?

So Steven Soderbergh’s Che posed a particular challenge to me. It’s almost four and a half hours along, conceived as a two-part film with a fifteen minute intermission. It was first shown at Cannes last year, where it got a mixed response, although Benicio del Toro as Che Guevara did win the award for best actor there. Some predicted it would never be seen again in that form, but it played New York and LA at the end of last year in a so-called “roadshow” engagement, before being generally released elsewhere as two separate films. I’d assumed Toronto would also get the part one/part two treatment, but then the Yonge/Dundas AMC came up with the full deal.

On to next week

I have no doubt Soderbergh would rather his film be viewed as a single entity. But frankly, that prospect depressed me. And my wife, who was coming with me, didn’t want to do it either; this, of course, is the bottom line on many issues. So we ended up going to the 1.30 show, staying until intermission and then leaving (we went to eat at the Osteria near Yonge and Queen, where Terroni’s used to be, which I entirely recommend; then we spent a quiet evening at home). As I write this, the following day, our plan is to return next week for the second half. Obviously this isn’t the most economical way of dealing with it, given that the AMC charged somewhat more than they do for a normal movie, but I didn’t say every decision we make is about the economics.

Anyway, I’ll let you know next week how part one takes on a different aspect in the light of part two (if, of course, I still remember anything about part one after the intervening week…no, I’m joking). On its own terms, the film is interesting, but much less radical or challenging as basic film-making than as commercial challenge. It focuses on the Cuban revolutionary years, as Guevara and Castro and an initially tiny band of rebels gradually grow in numbers and sophistication, culminating of course in overthrowing the Battista government. Soderbergh intercuts this with Che’s trip to New York in 1964, as a senior government representative now, to address the United Nations.


It’s all interesting, but mostly in a straightforward procedural kind of way; there’s very little insight into the man or his times, and nothing that strikes you as innovative cinema (let alone to a degree reflecting Che’s revolutionary ambitions). Maybe I’ll change my mind, but for now, I think I can handle this movie my own way.

(But then I went back the following week, and I did change my mind…)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Embarrassment of riches?


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2004)
 
On May 28th, 11 films opened commercially in Toronto, which I’d categorize as a mixed blessing. The Day after Tomorrow, Soul Plane and Raising Helen could take care of themselves, but the others were all niche pictures, and I seriously doubt you can tend to that many niches all at once. Some of the films had at least had their trailers playing regularly over the preceding month or more, but to the best of my knowledge Love Me if you Dare, for instance, just appeared out of nowhere. That weekend I went to see the four films dealt with below (I’d already seen, and written about, Young Adam at last year’s film festival), and the audiences were meagre in each case. But I know that even at this pace, many fine films remain unreleased here (just look at The New York Times’ listings on any given weekend), and I’m intensely grateful for places like the Carlton and Canada Square and the Cumberland. I just fear for their future, if the commercial releasing machine continues to treat its materials so haphazardly. During the film festival, we consistently sell out 9 am showings of crappy movies that no one’s ever heard of. Couldn’t we do slightly better at translating that commitment to the rest of the year?
 
Alexandra’s Project
 
Australian director Rolf de Heer’s project shows how an unhappy wife turns the tables on her self-regarding husband: on his birthday, arriving home expecting a surprise party, he finds himself alone and locked in, with only a video tape for company. Initially it looks like a titillating gag, but we know better – the only question is how bad it’s going to get. It’s essentially a two-handed film, with the additional handicap that the two actors barely appear in the same room, but it’s effectively creepy. And although de Heer may not quite be the David Mamet of Oleanna, he does a fair job of sewing ambiguity about which of the two is most unsympathetic – the root cause is certainly the husband’s complacency, but the movie establishes pretty clearly that he’s an Australian archetype, and her revenge may well seem disproportionate. It’s the kind of movie that will drive some to feel they need a bath, while leaving others more productively musing on the perils of sexuality. The ultimate neatness of the resolution, unfortunately, tends to emphasize the film’s contrivances over its politics.
 
Intermission
 
This Irish tale of multiple overlapping storylines might almost be trying to be an Irish Pulp Fiction – it has the low life glamour, the shifts of perspective, the eruptions of violence, the colourful profanity – but seems oddly muted and lacking in real commitment (it might be a sad comment on how sleazy this urban genre has lately become that Intermission seems disconcertingly mild at times). Some of the strands – such as the self-mythologizing cop being trailed around by a director of fluffy TV shows who’s looking to expand into tougher material – are entirely bewildering; others have a real sweetness, but of a very familiar kind. Colin Farrell is the best-known cast member, but his presence doesn’t provide much of a lift. It’s always entertaining, but that’s more a matter of momentum than anything else – the fact that it concludes on a note of childish payback seems like the final evidence of its shallow purpose.
 
Jeux d’enfants
 
Released here as Love Me if you Dare, this French film by Yann Samuel is being marketed as a romantic Amelie clone (on the Internet Movie Database you can find a bizarre message board argument about whether or not the two films were directed by the same person). The premise sounds romantic enough: a boy and girl fall into a never ending game of ever-increasing dares, and of course their escalating attempts to humiliate each other hide their intense mutual attraction. The movie acknowledges early on that there’s a perversity to how they stick with this project, and that’s putting it mildly – by any rational standard, we’re watching two sick people engaged in monstrously sado-masochistic displacement. If you doubt this, wait for the ending, which I won’t reveal here, but which could well make you vomit and swoon simultaneously. This all surely drastically undermines the movie’s popcorn credentials, and although the picture has visual panache, it’s more sporadic in this regard than Amelie was. The leads Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard (who played Billy Crudup’s wife in Big Fish) are also slightly nondescript. On the whole though, if Jeux d’enfants were an entry in David Letterman’s “Is That Anything?” segment, I would have to declare with some confidence that it’s certainly, uh, something. 
 
Crimson Gold
 
The strongest of the four films dealt with here, Jafar Panahi’s Iranian film (written by Abbas Kiarostami) starts with a pizza delivery man shooting himself dead in the wake of a jewelry store robbery gone wrong, and then shows some of the events that brought him there. Several writers compared the film to Taxi Driver, and others evoked film noir more generally. These echoes (I don’t know whether they’re conscious influences) are there for sure in the detailed portrayal of a troubled psyche (a war veteran, bloated and seemingly slowed down from the effects of the medication he’s taking for an unspecified injury) slowly drowning in an urban landscape. But this is a specifically Iranian film, crafting a devastating portrayal of how that evolving society shuts out the figures on the margins. The streets of Tehran, as seen here, are crowded and unprepossessing, but behind the walls the film shows substantial wealth, and an increasing tolerant secularism (going hand in hand with Western-style neurosis) in personal behaviour.
 
The deliveryman’s exclusion from this circle – symbolized in particular by the jeweler’s condescension – sets the stage for his disintegration, but it’s not a simple matter of class hatred. The film’s at pains to show how he’s treated sympathetically at most stops, and thus attains a power beyond polemic, showing how subtle evolutions in the social fabric generate winners and losers with an inevitability that’s beyond easy solutions. Perhaps the film’s most disconcerting facet is the character’s stillness and fatalist stolidity, as if he knew his fate (just as the audience does from the first scene) and was just waiting to see how he’ll get there. It’s in this sense that the comparison to film noir seems most astute, although – in another of the film’s fascinating strands – Crimson Gold’s illustration of the country’s attitudes towards women suggests some distance to go until the attainment of a Stanwyck or Joan Crawford, or even a Marion Cotillard. On the whole, Panahi’s film is yet another highpoint in Iranian cinema’s incredible 15-year run.
 

 
Although I guess three out of four of those reviews might be termed “mixed,” readers will probably have realized by now that I’ll put constructively engaged disagreement ahead of easy approval any day. So I’d call that a great movie weekend. And I didn’t even see The Rage in Placid Lake or Superstar in a Housedress or Goldilocks.

Friday, December 5, 2014

My favourite rat



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2007)

I think I might have enjoyed Brad Bird’s Ratatouille more than any other movie so far this year. And even though it’s a G-rated animated feature from the Disney/Pixar label, I don’t think it’s that it appealed to the “child in me.” Well, I guess we could attribute all capacity for spontaneous delight to some inner juvenile, but my pleasure in the film felt completely mature. People often say that movies like Shrek are “really for adults,” and my reaction is always to wonder then who, say, Ingmar Bergman can possibly be for. Extra-terrestrials I guess. But it shows you how lame the notion of mature entertainment has become, that people are so turned on by glib references to popular culture, as if this served to illuminate (much less to critique) anything at all.

Ratatouille

I don’t think Ratatouille has a single glib reference to popular culture, and the film’s miracle is in creating an entertainment that seems to me (although I can’t analyze the pre-teen perspective on this) massively, torrentially accessible, while radiating constant artistic integrity. It’s the story of a French rat, Remy, who while the rest of the pack scrounges in the garbage, develops a passion for gourmet cooking. Circumstances take him to the kitchen of a premiere French restaurant, where he teams up with a kitchen boy to prepare unprecedented meals – the rat supplies the know-how, the boy supplies the hands. But human prejudice against rats (especially in kitchens) prevents Remy from getting the acclaim he deserves, and the malign forces of commercialization, and lousy packaged food, loom large as well.

I don’t know how persuasive such a plot summary will be. Let me just say that Ratatouille is a staggering visual achievement, sending its unconstrained camera on journeys of impossibly intricate choreography – from the depths of sewers out to the glories of Paris in one mesmerizing journey, or through the frantic perils of a busy kitchen from a rat’s eye view. The animation of the human characters is sophisticatedly stylized, whereas Remy is simply one of the all-time triumphs of anthropomorphism – immensely sympathetic, but always very plainly a rat. The movie orchestrates familiar, comforting cycles of highs and lows, but it avoids cheap gags, and it’s always as much of a pleasure to listen to as to watch (by the way, there are no goofy songs either).

And most of all, apart from doing a stellar job of promoting the merits of good, natural food, it’s transcendent in its insistence that artistic achievement can spring from the least likely of sources – a validation provided through a sour food critic voiced by Peter O’Toole (giving, for my money, a more Oscar-worthy performance than he did in Venus). In this regard, Ratatouille is a perfect marriage of form and content – for doubters like me, it’s not quite as miraculous as a dreamy meal cooked up by a rodent, but it’s in the ballpark.

Joshua

George Ratliff’s Joshua works on the opposite premise, to convince us that malign intent, or outright evil, can also exist where we least expect it. Unless that is we’ve seen The Omen series or Birth or the other movies that tune us into the perils of soft-spoken dark-haired boys. Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga play well-to-do Manhattan parents of such a boy, and a new baby girl, whose arrival triggers all kinds of escalating trauma

There’s nothing overtly supernatural about the premise, which of course makes it even more unsettling – it’s a cautionary tale in the perils of a slight maladjustment in a mostly exemplary nurturing process. I don’t have kids and I still found it pretty unsettling – parents of anything less than fortress-like self-confidence might not sleep afterwards. The movie’s especially wicked in fingering females – from old to very very young – as the key sources of imbalance. The movie doesn’t try to move much beyond its genre, but certainly suggests that Ratliff (formerly known as a documentarian) could pull off some pretty subtle work.

A Mighty Heart is Michael Winterbottom’s telling of the kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who disappeared in Pakistan in 2002, on the way to a perilous interview with a Taliban activist: he was ultimately beheaded. Mariane, his strong, sympathetic wife (who was pregnant at the time) is played here by Angelina Jolie, which has inevitably dominated the coverage of the film; her performance is noble and astute and need be neither raved over nor condescended to.

The film is primarily interesting for Winterbottom’s customary facility in conveying the guts of a complex situation – it seems convincing on the chaos of Pakistan, both socially and politically, and it feels like it’s giving us a reasonable approximation of the complexity of the search for Pearl, with all sorts of interests and leads and concerns tumbling over each other. It’s a pretty neutral work of reconstruction, staying away from the big politics, and ends up feeling satisfying but minor. As such it’s typical of Winterbottom, whose energy and resourcefulness are consistently more academically interesting than actually exciting and engaging. His film leaves you feeling sad and well informed, but somehow yields virtually nothing to talk over afterwards.

You Kill Me

John Dahl’s You Kill Me is a trivial concoction about an alcoholic New Jersey hitman who is sent to San Francisco to get his act together. The star Ben Kingsley bragged in an interview about how the cast and director took pride in finding a unique approach to every scene, but the mild resulting quirkiness can’t overcome the broader familiarity. If we believe Hollywood, hitman is second only to cop as a flourishing career choice, and the associated well of studied incongruity is plain dry. Despite some good performances (including Tea Leoni as a highly attractive and capable-seeming woman who, for no good reason whatsoever, falls for the taciturn killer), there’s zero reason for this movie to exist.  


Lars von Trier’s The Boss of it All is a comedy about a corporate owner who’s long hidden his identity, posing as just another manager – when he wants to sell the company, he must hire an actor to play the part of big boss. Von Trier provides an occasional voice-over to insist on the dispensable nature of what we’re watching, and the movie is certainly lightweight – it’s shot in a technique called “Automavision” which apparently limited the director’s control over the camera. As always, he’s a smoother artist than he likes to pretend, so the movie is a pretty good satire of corporate attitudes (not that another one was really necessary) and, more lumberingly, of the pretensions of art. I also note it’s the kind of movie in which a senior female employee has sex with the “boss” within a day of meeting him, just to prove a point. Maybe that’s satire, or maybe certain aspects of von Trier’s worldview run on Auto too.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

2008 Toronto Film Festival - Part 4


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)

Vinyan (Fabrice Du Welz)

One of my few largely random choices this year, this is a broodingly exotic drama about a couple (Emmanuelle Beart and Rufus Sewell) who lost their son in the 2004 tsunami; still in Thailand, the wife becomes convinced the boy is alive, over the Burmese border. She convinces her husband they should pay a shady character to get them there, and from then on the film reminded me increasingly of Apocalypse Now, although with a very different heart of darkness. Their journey is a deliberately murky mélange of menace, spirituality, spectacular (but not overly dwelled-on) landscapes, swirling river mist, and escalating ill fortune and madness. It’s quite fascinating, although many of the elements seem questionable: the set-up appears rather rushed, the ending fanciful (if impactful), many of the details contrived. Du Welz doesn’t always seem in full control of his apparatus – an early scene in the night of the city feels as if he mounted the camera on the head of a frantic goat and just accepted whatever jumble of images resulted. The beautiful Beart (I said the choice was largely random) is enormously compelling, even if, again, her character’s psychology never completely convinces.

Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski)

Skolimowski was a key figure of the 60’s through the early 80’s – bursting with radical energy out of his native Poland and becoming an exotic wanderer of a kind you seldom see now. His best-known film may be the compelling Deep End, which still turns up on the Scream cable channel occasionally; you might also remember Moonlighting, with Jeremy Irons as a Polish labourer stranded in London. His last work, Ferdyduke, was by most accounts a hodgepodge, and Skolimowski has not directed in the seventeen years since then (he turned up as an actor in Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, playing Naomi Watts’ hot-blooded uncle). The new film takes him right back to his roots, to the most unprepossessing Polish locations and characters possible. The protagonist is a sad middle-aged lump of a man, recently out of jail for a rape he didn’t commit, who develops an attachment to a woman living in an adjacent block of nurses’ quarters; at first he spies on her through binoculars, then starts to sneak into her room at night (having fortified her sugar supply with ground-up sleeping pills). It has a wonderfully creepy opening, slyly misleading us about the meaning of certain events, and establishing a feeling of grey, unadorned (but very specifically visualized) dread that persists through much of the film. To digress for a second, I always tend to think of Skolimowski and Roman Polanski as being on the same general page, and I recently rewatched Polanski’s late-90’s thriller The Ninth Gate – where Johnny Depp tracks down the long-buried secret of communing with Satan. I enjoyed the fluidity of it in a way, but I couldn’t stop thinking that Polanski must feel a sense of loss within himself, at how the precise intimations of pain and evil in his best earlier work blanded out into mere glossy artifice. The Pianist subsequently took him somewhat back in the right direction, but he’s a rich international figure now – it’s plainly too late. Skolimowski by contrast, never as feted or scrutinized even at his peak, could yet experience a true artistic revitalization. Four Nights with Anna isn’t quite that – for all its intrigue and impeccable handling (and, almost in the margins, its concise portrait of the continuing limitations and lingering authoritarianism in the post-Communist East), it’s ultimately just too minor I think. But this is one of my favourite things about movies, when the old guys show who’s still in charge.

Adam Resurrected (Paul Schrader)

For some reason, I end up mentioning Schrader in this space more than almost any other director – the arc of his career (writing Taxi Driver; directing movies from American Gigolo to Affliction) and his personal travails (born into strict religious fundamentalism; all kinds of obsessions and addictions since then) fascinates me, even though the impact of his films on me is hit and miss. The new film is in the higher echelon of his work, although it’s also easy to criticize. Jeff Goldblum plays a Jewish entertainer who survives the death camp by mimicking a dog for the depraved camp commander (Willem Dafoe) and playing the violin as the victims (even his own wife and daughter) march to the gas chamber. In the 50’s he’s in Israel, frequently institutionalized at a facility in the middle of the desert, where he comes across a boy who imagines himself a dog; this allows Adam a symbolic opportunity to redeem himself, by leading the youth out of his madness. That basic set-up seems forced and unconvincing, but the film contains a lot of grim inventiveness, and Goldblum is as charismatic and inventive as he’s ever been. On the other hand, it’s not clear that Schrader ever fully worked out his attitude on the material – his handling of the material in the camps seems particularly wan, and the ending strikes an odd note. I don’t think the movie will stand as much more than a curio, but it takes on more resonance if viewed as the latest in Schrader’s many portrayals of obsessed, extreme individuals.
 


Appaloosa (Ed Harris)

Harris’ second film as director (the first was Pollock) is a mostly conventional Western, benefiting from the relative rarity of even conventional Westerns nowadays, and from a few unusual angles on the material. Harris and Viggo Mortensen play two wandering “peacekeepers” engaged to bring order to a small town terrorized by the local bigshot (Jeremy Irons) and his gang. The twists and turns conjure up echoes of virtually every movie ever made in the genre, although only intermittently to the film’s advantage. Harris doesn’t bring much visual distinction to the exercise (compared to Leone); the atmosphere is thin and rather antiseptic (compared to Peckinpah); the occasional humour is shallow and repetitive (compared to Hawks). Most interesting is the arc of the character played by Renee Zellweger - a widow who draws Harris’ affections. She takes on substantially more layering than we expect, and then the movie doesn’t extract the usual price from her either, which sets up an unusual, quite ambiguous ending. It’s good entertainment overall, although a very typical festival choice – no one will ever again be as enthusiastic about it as they were, sight unseen, that glitzy night on the red carpet.

And overall…

Many say it was a lesser festival this year, but my little piece of it (confined this year to just one or two films every day) worked out as well as I could possibly have hoped for. I’ll especially look forward to seeing Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Story again, but I was very consistently stimulated and stretched, and barely ever bored. So no complaints from me!

2008 Toronto Film Festival - Part 3



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)

24 City (Jia Zhang-ke)

Jia is one of the most interesting filmmakers to watch right now, partly because he’s hooked in to one of the world’s most fascinating subjects – China’s continuing modernization and the effect upon its inhabitants. His greatest expression of the theme was in The World a few years ago: since then he’s taken a more incremental approach, exploring with documentary and semi-documentary techniques. 24 City continues this project, focusing on a long-standing Chengdu factory now being demolished, to be replaced by a modern commercial/residential complex, and interviewing a cross-section of those affected (some of them real; others played by actress, notably by Joan Chen who achieved fame in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor). The recurring theme is the place, or even the plausibility, of individual desires and dreams and aspirations, set against a social and industrial momentum that will marginalize, if not crush, all but the strongest/most fortunate (I was lucky enough to go to China a few years ago – mostly to Beijing and Hong Kong but also a little off the beaten track – and I’ve never felt so fully how one might simply get swallowed up). So whereas the relatively fortunate can dwell on a memory of breaking up with a girlfriend, and remembering how she resembled the heroine of a particular TV show; for others, the testimony is much grimmer, testifying to a lifelong battle for self-actualization, if not for basic human rights. Jia ventilates his film with often-ironic snatches of popular song, poetry, and asides, and overall it’s a compelling social document. My only reservation (as it was with his last film Still Life, which built a not entirely dissimilar project around the dislocation of the Three Gorges dam project) is that Jia is so talented that I can’t help feeling we’re missing out on potentially more ambitious and even more resonant works.

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)

Assayas has recently seemed preoccupied by the intersection of tech and trashiness in the confusing new world; Demonlover and Boarding Gate had a perfect feel for contemporary turbocharged alienation, but left many people feeling merely, well, alienated. The new film is superficially far removed from there – one of those typically French creations (with Juliette Binoche yet!) built around family get-togethers and conflicts. In this case, the matriarch – who’s largely dedicated her later life to preserving the memory of her uncle, a famous painter – dies, and her children must decide what to do with the house and its contents (and by extension with the heritage and worldview they represent). Two of the siblings work outside France in the new global economy; the third lives in Paris and has written a book questioning whether the economy – as usually discussed – even exists. Not hard to guess whose views prevail, and there lies the thematic link to the other recent films. Put that way, the film sounds fairly straightforward – take for example the use of a modern telephone (not even an iphone!) as a symbol of too much progress. But it’s very skillfully handled (Assayas is a master coordinator of overlapping movement, and the house and its artifacts are wonderfully conceived), and I found it quite gracefully moving overall. Assayas is no doubt a pragmatist, but the film’s sense of loss is palpable and convincing – whether directed at furniture removed from context and function into a stark museum where visitors merely snooze by on the way to the jazzier stuff, or even at the way that transgression and misdemeanor aren’t as poetically alluring as they used to be. The cast is uniformly ideal.

It Might Get Loud (Davis Guggenheim)

Guggenheim’s follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth is an all-too-convenient contrivance – he brings together three generations of rock electric guitar mastery, to see how loud it gets (answer – not as much as you might think or hope). The participants are old pro Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin, U2’s famously obsessive stickler The Edge, and Jack White from The White Stripes, who most prizes atmosphere and authenticity. The actual encounter makes up relatively little of the film though, and what there is of it is pretty lifeless – the rest is separately shot footage and archival retrospectives of the three. It’s all entertaining of course, but it doesn’t feel like a very logical or necessary movie, and it doesn’t even do that good a job of showcasing the music. An Inconvenient Truth was obviously acclaimed more for the inherent worthiness of its content than for any cinematic skill – likewise, Guggenheim doesn’t bring much to the table here…indeed I’m not sure he fully realizes what’s on the table.
 


Nuit de Chien (Werner Schroeter)

Schroeter has been cited as a major art-house name for decades now, and his new film made the festival’s Masters section, but I don’t know when anyone might actually get a chance to see his work. The profile on the Senses of Cinema website says that ambiguity is “a constant trait of his films (allowing) for a degree of openness that tends either to engage or frustrate viewers depending on their tastes...his work is a testament to the very possibility of the coexistence of both celebration and parody, of both 'high' and 'low.'” His latest, the first in six years, is set in an unnamed European city undergoing major political breakdown. A high-ranking soldier returns in the middle of all this, in search of the woman he loves; along the way he brushes up against the various military and secret police factional leaders, skirmishing and plotting for control, all of which is seemingly hopeless anyway in the shadow of a pending invading force. There’s no sign of what caused the breakdown, and throughout the city little pockets of activity – usually involving hostesses, seedy bars, or surprisingly tenacious cab drivers – continue in hardy isolation. Schroeter’s approach is stark – not exactly realistic, there’s a knowing air of baroque melodrama to much of it – and of course, given the subject matter, there’s a pervasive resignation (the opening and closing epigram, intoning that “death will come when it will come,” seems to warn against our investing ourselves in the film’s apparent narrative). Given his reputation though, it works better as a semi-conventional yarn than I expected (indeed, perhaps both celebrating and parodying the broad social breakdown genre). Being totally new to his work (and maybe even if I wasn’t), it’s hard to determine what more complex strategies might lie below the film’s surface, and I do find myself wondering whether it’s viable just to dip into this one presumably late work, without any prior grounding. But maybe the use in one scene of Orson Welles’ voice from his classic War of the Worlds hoax is a tip-off not to take it too seriously. The festival program calls the film an “extraordinary gift,” but doesn’t offer much of a hint of what the specific nature of the gift might be.

2008 Toronto Film Festival - Part 2



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)

Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh)

Leigh has had a long and prestigious career but there’s a definite lack of consensus on what it amounts to. Is he an insightful chronicler of some deep truth about ordinary people, or a quirky grump off on his own peculiar ledge? I’m not sure myself, but I think he’s achieved his best work – with Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake – when focused on a particular historical or social purpose; at other times (as with All or Nothing) the films often seem to drift. The new movie, back in the present day, is built around the kind of relentlessly cheerful character who’s popped up in the margins of some of his previous films – 30-year-old Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a nursery school teacher who goes through life with a quip for every occasion and an almost pathological inability not to look at the bright side. Leigh is very good of course with the banter of the English masses (at times the movie just carries you along in a string of giggles), and although there’s little overt political content here, the film slowly lets in more of society’s dark and drab sides. In particular there’s Poppy’s tightly wound driving instructor, who simply can’t handle her, and there’s a great one-off scene with a homeless man who lurches between operatic incoherence and sharp lucidity (although Leigh has created scenes like this before too). Ultimately, there’s not much more to all this than the observation of Poppy’s best friend that “It’s hard being a grown-up,” which I suppose might broadly be what virtually every great film is about. But Poppy is a distinctive enough creation that she comes to seem almost radical. Ultimately I don’t think the film will change anyone’s opinions about Leigh, but I was firmly on board for the whole thing.

Achilles and the Tortoise (Takeshi Kitano)

Actor-director Kitano’s career has been illustrious enough to get him to the festival’s “Masters” section - he won the top price at the Venice Festival for Hana-Bi and his Zatoichi won the TIFF people’s choice award in 2003. There’s a grab-bag aspect to his work, but he’s achieved some beauty and plenty of deadpan diversion. With his last few films he’s shaken off his tough-guy origins, but at the cost of too much self-absorption. The new one is a nice little movie, straining for significance (the title metaphor doesn’t count for much) built around the intriguing concept of a dedicated life long artist who has lots of basic skill and imagination but lacks the je ne sais quoi that separates the notables from the also-rans. It takes us from his bourgeois childhood, ending in catastrophic bust, through art-school hi-jinks and an adulthood of stoic disappointments, pumped up throughout by the dazzling parade of his unwanted creations. Kitano’s expressionless block of a presence is perfectly suited to embodying the character’s older years. Throw in the recurring motif of death (but always with the sheen of art) and it makes for an engaging creation, although it’s tempting to take the easy criticism and to say that the film, like its protagonist, is more facile and resourceful than actually meaningful. This could of course be a clever fusion of form and content, a structure of bluffs and double bluffs, except that Kitano’s recent work suggests that, nah, this is actually as good as he could do.

Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino)

Sorrentino’s film probably isn’t ideally suited for those who, like me, have only a vague knowledge of post-war Italian politics (as in, it’s really dysfunctional, and a lot of people got blown up) – even the opening explanatory screen-scroll is barely penetrable. So this is a film where you have to go with the big picture, but then that’s all confusing too. Artfully so of course, for isn’t the false promise of simplicity and clarity in politics one of the great damaging illusions of our times? (cue Sarah Palin metaphor). The subject is Giulio Andreotti, who was several times Italian prime minister, maintained (as depicted here) a complex web of connections while remaining personally repressed and inscrutable, and was eventually indicted for complicity in Mafia crimes. “You’re either the most cunning criminal in the country,” says an acquaintance, “or the most persecuted man in Italy.” It’s likely that the film’s Andreotti – a man we see rip a page out of a mystery novel because he doesn’t want to know the killer – couldn’t tell you himself. The film has a silky menace that evokes the dark texture of the Godfather films (an obvious reference point in various ways); it also incorporates hints of Sergio Leone and others, although Sorrentino is much more actively experimental and out to dazzle with technique (which he frequently does, although again, not always comprehensibly). For outsiders (and no doubt largely for insiders), the murkiness about what Andreotti actually achieved (beyond a broad reference to his contribution to steering through the Cold War) makes it hard to assess his place on the moral spectrum. Still, it’s not a small achievement to make a movie that’s so compelling while yet leaving you feeling so grievously under-resourced.
 


Les plages d’Agnes (Agnes Varda)

Varda is over 80 now and has been making films for over 50 years, most recently a series of filmic essays often drawing on her own prodigiously creative existence. The latest is notionally based on the importance of various beaches in her life, but this is merely the starting point for another remarkably graceful reverie on family, friends, memory, love, loss, art and, always, cinema. She’s a compulsive recycler (one of her best-loved films The Gleaners and I took off from this trait) – I’ve now seen some of this footage (such as Jim Morrison visiting the set of Donkey Skin) three or four times in various places, and her work knowingly draws (detractors, although I’m not sure there are many of them, would say coasts) on her audience’s affection for her. The film certainly rewards it though, never more than when she once again pays tribute to her late husband Jacques Demy (who made The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), who she clearly still misses keenly after 18 years and discusses here more frankly in some ways than I’ve seen before. Varda’s resources are stunning – she visits people she shot as children in her first film La Pointe Courte; displays her extra-cinematic work from 50’s photos of China to recent art installations; dresses up as a giant potato; throws in some full-frontal nudity; talks (allegedly anyway) to fellow documentarian Chris Marker, who’s hiding behind a giant cartoon cat with a disguised voice; builds herself a makeshift beach in the middle of her Paris neighbourhood…all connected so subtly and fluidly that almost immediately afterwards you struggle to recall how she could possibly have done it.

2008 Toronto Film Festival - Part 1



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2008)

35 Rhums (Claire Denis)

Denis’ films appear regularly at the festival but are rather hard to see otherwise. Her best-known may be the 1999 Beau Travail, a dream-like memory of the French Foreign Legion. I saw it twice but still found it hard to penetrate. Since then I’ve only seen Trouble Every Day, a horror movie of sorts – overflowing with fascinating, superficially contradictory elements, but very easy to lose one’s bearings in (when I saw it, many people simply walked out). This is to say that Denis’ films are not easy. 35 Rhums seems much more accommodating on the surface – a gentle portrayal of a black single father and his daughter, and some of the people in their vicinity. The title refers to the father’s notion (which he may have invented himself) that notable life-changing occasions need to be marked by 35 shots of rum; a practice that on the face of it could only result in obliterating the very memory being celebrated. This device symbolizes the film’s broader balancing between life-changing events and others which – although inherently transient - may carry as much spiritual weight at least at the time and perhaps even (given the vagaries of personality) permanently. Take for example the scene where one character, realizing that his 17-year-old (and apparently fondly regarded) cat has died during the night, throws it and its toys in the trash and almost immediately announces his intention to take a job overseas, given his sudden absence of ties. The film incorporates some wonderful invention and observation of character – overall, grappling with Denis’ complexity is as pleasurable and immediately rewarding here as I’ve ever known it to be.

Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)

Folman’s film is in the animated genre of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, films that essentially paint on top of real life, in the hope perhaps of attaining something more vivid, heightened and meaningful than “mere” photographic representation (reportedly it’s a mixture of “flash animation, traditional hand-drawn technique, and computer-enhanced 3-D modeling”). It’s an investigation in memory, carried out at a 20-year distance by a former Israeli soldier (the director himself) who’s lost most of his recall of what he did, and tries to reconstruct it by interviewing past colleagues and others. After such a period, of course, recovered memory might be indistinguishable from retroactive invention, and for a while it seems the film may be more interesting in structure and style than historical illumination. But the closing sequences – focusing on a 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians – compellingly wash away that impression (as the program book notes though, there’s little or no explicit political content). Just as memory and history intertwine, it’s intriguing how the use of animation both confuses and heightens the sense of what’s being represented here. There are a couple of references to people going through momentous events as if in a film – to keep their emotional distance – and Folman exploits that concept quite slyly here. There’s a lot of humour and artful audience-tweaking in the mix too, but when it switches to live action for the final few shots, any sense of protective distance falls away. It’s a good film, although it feels more like one of cinema’s numerous one-shot wonders than the start of a major career for its director.

Un conte de Noel (Arnaud Desplechin)

Desplechin’s Kings and Queen is one of my favorite films of recent years – an amazing tumble of characters and ideas and allusions, with a hugely sophisticated sense of behavioural complexity. I later went back and watched the director’s earlier Esther Kahn, a very strange but perhaps waywardly brilliant English-language piece about a turn-of-the-century actress. I would love to see Desplechin’s other films, but I don’t think anything else is readily available for now. The new film is almost as enthralling as Kings and Queen. Like 35 rhums, the raw elements are deceptively familiar – one of those grand family dramas in which old resentments, passions, secrets and so on play themselves out over Christmas. The most immediate crisis is the mother’s leukemia, for which she must find a bone marrow donor within the family (she’s played by Catherine Deneuve; the fine cast also includes Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Devos), and yet in the film’s scheme, almost as significant is the doubling with her first-born child, who died decades earlier at the age of 6. The sense is that this threw off the family’s equilibrium forever, leaving it in constant scramble to make sense of itself, and the film orchestrates a dizzying, often knowingly theatrical, but precisely conceived tapestry of highs and lows. This being a French film, there’s an immense pragmatism to many of the attitudes (watching it in the immediate wake of the week of Sarah Palin just makes you think again how little sense of possibility so many Americans have, for all their land-of-the-free rhetoric). Who among us, comes the question near the end, can take life and its experiences seriously, and the film might be viewed as a multi-faceted reverie on attaining a bearable lightness of being (to lift a concept Desplechin, in one of the interviews on the Kings and Queen DVD, applied to that film’s protagonist). Overall, this is a very fine film.
 


The Girl from Monaco (Anne Fontaine)

I’ve written here in the past that Fontaine seems capable of major work – her last film Nouvelle Chance was completely delightful and gracefully meaningful. But she’s another director with very little exposure beyond the film festival. Her new work – selected as a festival gala - might have a shot at greater exposure, although ironically it’s certainly the least interesting of those I’ve seen. A doughy, emotionally rather repressed criminal lawyer, in Monaco for a big trial, falls for a dizzy TV weather girl who rapidly messes up his head; and by the way, his taciturn bodyguard is her former lover. The movie is fun to watch but never seems even remotely plausible; it’s one of those films the flimsiness of which gets you mulling on issues such as how the guy manages to prepare for and perform in court every day when he’s spending entire nights dancing and boozing and making whoopee. Louise Bourgoin, as the danger woman (in a part reportedly drawing on her own French TV presence), is diverting, but hardly groundbreaking – the notion of female directors redeeming characters who might appear merely slutty in coarser hands has been well covered now. And although the ending is much darker than you’d ever see in a Hollywood treatment of this material, it’s also pretty arbitrary. On the whole, after the banquet of Denis’ and Desplechin’s films, this is like snacking on a cookie.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

January movies



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2006)

Terrence Malick’s The New World will probably end up as one of my favourite releases of 2006. His telling of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas is simply ravishing, and it’s utterly surprising and bracing for virtually every single minute. It’s not just that Malick rejects the usual norms of narrative and editing – it’s as if he’s never known them, and intuitively replaces mainstream conventions with a sense of intense romanticism that spans time and space and inner and outer states. So a single cut might as easily link two months as the instant that connects two glances; the tumblings in one’s head might be as vivid as what is spoken; the logic of an emotional contrast might supercede any interest in explaining how A turned into B. This makes the movie difficult at times, but overall it provides you the consistent thrill of submitting to a simply breathtaking sensibility. I don’t know about its historical accuracy, but it certainly feels anthropologically fascinating as well. Apparently the DVD version will be around 45 minutes longer – it instantly looms as a necessary future purchase.

Looking for Comedy

Albert Brooks’ Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World lives in that strange Brooks territory – it feels as if he deliberately held the movie back from being all that funny, salting it with an inscrutable dose of the knowingly sub-standard and obvious, while letting in just enough of the good stuff that we know it’s a ploy. Since he’s essentially playing himself here – as a comedian sent on a governmental mission to find out what makes the Muslims laugh - and has lots of material about “his” comedy going down like a lead balloon, there’s undoubtedly some level of meta-commentary to all this, which provides undemanding pleasure. The film’s more serious ambitions, if it really has any (it’s hard to tell) don’t amount to very much at all, and it completely peters out at the end – it plays very much as if a final act was hacked off. I enjoyed it well enough, but it’s definitely one of Brooks’ weaker efforts, and especially disappointing for how there’s the smell of pampered middle age about that weakness.

The controversial film Karla finally received a meager release, by which time all the hand wringing had pretty much petered out. It’s not much of a movie, lacking any distinctive perspective on the material – something that makes its very existence seem, indeed, tawdry and exploitative. On the other hand, it has a peculiar sense of decorum that means that much is implied more than shown, although this sometimes seems more a reflection of a TV movie sensibility than of anything you could call taste. It’s not much fun to watch, and as many have pointed out, would not likely have been worthy of a cinema release at all under normal circumstances.

Woody’s Reinvention

Woody Allen reinvents himself so startlingly in Match Point that it’s easy to overrate the end result. Far from Manhattan or easy laughs, the film is a highly precise, coolly-handled fable of deceit among the British upper classes, with Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as the poor boy who marries his way into vast money, and Scarlet Johansson as the struggling actress who tempts him. It’s completely engrossing scene by scene, and Allen’s feel for the milieu is remarkable, even if the attitudes and much of the underlying concepts are somewhat antiquated. The tone falters here and there, and the meditations on chance and destiny are mostly superficial: for all his achievement here, the picture justifies Allen’s angst about not being Fellini or Bergman – his sensibility and instincts just aren’t that complex. Still, I agree with the consensus that it’s his best picture in quite a while, and it’s also the movie to date that best justifies Johansson’s burgeoning iconic status.

Imagine Me and You is a British trifle about a young woman who, while walking down the aisle with her long-time boyfriend, locks eyes with another woman, and instantly falls for her. The film aspires to a Four Weddings and a Funeral-kind of tone, falling way short (it sparks literally no laughs), and it could hardly be more predictable. The inherent timeless appeal of pretty young people in nice settings, and the absence of shrillness or preachiness, carries it along well enough, but it’s hardly necessary. And for all the basic receptiveness to same-sex relationship, the other woman is still presented in an inherently predatory light, and the movie pointedly chooses to end on an image of heterosexual rather than gay fulfillment.

Lajos Koltai’s Fateless is a chilling evocation of one Hungarian boy’s experience in the concentration camps. The film has been called overly familiar, but given the subject matter it’s difficult to disparage even a straightforward work of commemoration. And besides, Fateless does become distinctive and intriguing in its thoughts on how the extreme indoctrination of the camps becomes an alternate reality and, ultimately, even a grotesque alternative happiness: such evil as this renders all moral judgments, all sense of personal identity, utterly distorted.

Computer Blunder

Richard Loncraine’s Firewall has Harrison Ford as a bank officer and tech expert who is forced to embezzle a hundred million dollars from his own bank, by a group of ruthless hi-tech thugs holding his family at gunpoint (a premise which reminded me most immediately of Peter Yates’ The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, although I expect my memory might as easily have gone in at least a hundred different directions). It’s difficult not to admire the conceptual prowess of such genre entries – of course it’s implausible, but the use of ipods and GPS-fitted dog collars and camera phones and suchlike has real narrative panache. Unfortunately, the approach to character, theme, and other matters is much more cursory, rendering this yet another bewilderingly underachieving mainstream film.  Director Loncraine (Richard III) could certainly have done better than this, and although Ford is still an effective centre for this kind of thing, there’s no question he’s slowing down.


The very best film of the month was the re-release after thirty years of Michelangelo Antonioni’s long-absent The Passenger, which played for several weeks at the Carlton after a few showings at the Cinematheque. It comes out on DVD in March, and I’ll write about it later in the year. Oh, and I’d also written an entire article around Eli Roth’s Hostel and James Ivory’s The White Countess. For the first time in seven years of writing in this space, I blundered with my computer files and accidentally erased it (no chance of hi-tech bank hacking from this direction!). I just didn’t have the heart to write any of that stuff out again. But I basically liked them both.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Accountants in the Movies: the Next Big Thing


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2005)

Today I come out of the closet and make to you this confession – I am not the man I seem to be. Well, I already have to correct myself, for I have no idea how these weekly columns make me seem. I’ve never received any marriage proposals from it, to cite just one possible benchmark. But anyway, the point is that the column doesn’t actually take me a week to write, and doesn’t finance the life to which I’ve become accustomed. Or even the life to which my dog has become accustomed. So I work in the securities industry. And as if that wasn’t already enough of a blow to my credibility, I’m an accountant – I have a CA. I hasten to add that my job doesn’t actually involve much accounting; I’ve evolved beyond that. But nevertheless, by my admitting this much, the damage is done. And I only ask that if you’re already thinking my modest credibility is gone, and that this is the end of the relationship, then remember it’s all for the homeless.

You Can Do Better

Some people in the office know I write these columns and they know about my interest in movies generally, so I regularly get asked for questions and opinions. I don’t really like it – the conversations usually pivot on pretty low-grade films, and I’d rather keep the two worlds separate anyway. A couple of years ago someone suggested it might be good to have an article in our in-house newsletter about movies that carry a message about accounting and securities oversight, and this was handed on to me. I had no enthusiasm for the task at all, and sent back a deliberately lame two-line email saying: “I guess there are some movies about financial shenanigans that could be stretched into a broader message of sorts. They include Trading Places, Rollover ...more generally things like Midnight Run and The Untouchables.”

I got a response saying: “Come on Jack - you're a fringe film critic --I know you can do better than this -- Wasn't Too Beautiful for You with Gerard Depardieu about insider trading -- or was that another French movie of about the same vintage about a man and his secretary?  How about Diary of a Young Stock Broker with that guy who always played stockbrokers as dweebs? How about Born Yesterday --corporate governance?  How about Face in the Crowd - ok it's really about the corrupt confluence of business and politics, but it's one of the best movies ever made.”

This was already way too much time than I wanted to spend on the subject, so I ignored it and fortunately it went away. But recently I wrote an extended article on Rollover (see the current issue of CineAction) and in the course of that was thinking a little more about cinema’s avoidance of financial matters. And then I received an issue of a magazine called The Bottom Line, an accounting journal. It’s pretty dry stuff even for accountants, but I guess they’re jazzing it up because it contained a supplement called The Accounting Life, with a cover promising (and I am not making this up): “Interior Design, Casual Clothing, Cool Gadgets, Accounting Stars, Health, Etiquette, Wine.” (Somehow they forgot the great sex). And inside I found nirvana – a two-page article on accountants in the cinema.

Spectrum of Human Experience

Mark Wolfe wrote it, and did a great job on it. He points out that whereas every second movie seems to prominently feature an attorney in one way or another, the accountant seems like a more shadowy presence (along with most of the other “normal” jobs that people have). But, he says, “I was surprised at the range of films that took advantage of characters portraying accountants…What I have found is that accountants roles represent the broad spectrum of human experience. They are mob bookkeepers, con-artists, insane schemers, devious murderers, crooks, mild-mannered lovers, shy intellectuals, average Joes – and excessive geeks.”

Man, that really is the broad spectrum of human experience. Sadly, the spectrum seems to become particularly packed at the more depressing end. Wolfe’s article singles out 24 movies, from which I offer the following extracts: “duplicitous accountant” (The Main Event), “bumbling adulterer and accountant” (Hannah and her Sisters), “scheming accountants” (Small Time Crooks), “nutty accountant” (The Producers), “inept accountant” (Rocky V), “perfidious accountant” (The Addams Family). Oh, and “accountant…who is left to frequent a strip club” (Exotica).

In a number of others, the accountant is barely a character in the film at all, but merely a tool or device. This covers the accountant in Gloria “who gets whacked at the beginning of the film,” the accountant in Confidence on whom Edward Burns pulls a fast one, thus pulling in the accountant’s boss Dustin Hoffman, and most poignantly, from The Road To Perdition, a “poor, timid soul…inadvertently killed by a stray bullet during a gunfight in a hotel room.”

That leaves ten or so in which the accountant is a notable player and in which his profession as an accountant is at least somewhat significant to the shaping of his character. I would say his or her, but the only female in the bunch is Jennifer Connelly in The Hot Spot (who knew? – this by the way substantially misrepresents the profession, which is fast moving toward equality). Among the highlights – Charles Martin Smith in The Untouchables, Ben Kingsley in Schindler’s List, Charles Grodin in Midnight Run and in Dave. And perhaps preeminently, Johnny Depp in Dead Man, the rare accountant whose calling leads him into somewhere resonant and mystical (Depp also played an accountant in Nick Of Time, thus establishing himself perhaps as the unacknowledged cinematic standard bearer for the profession).

True Essence of Accounting

For completeness, other movies cited are The Apartment (although at the risk of sounding elitist, the Jack Lemmon character was not so much a true accountant but an “accounting clerk”). Bowfinger, Ghostbusters, The Royal Tenenbaums, D.O.A., Heaven Can Wait. Which is not a bad list overall. And at least it yielded one Oscar winner (Michael Caine in Hannah).

But since I’ve now dragged myself out of the closet, I guess I can’t make myself sound any geekier if I admit that none of these get at the true essence of being an accountant, which (at least the way I like to think I do it) is much more creative, strategic and varied than those outside the profession realize. And none of them get at the role accountants play in maintaining our capital markets, in safeguarding our economic destinies. There are so many great untold accounting stories out there.

But I’m not going to be the one telling them...

Saturday, October 18, 2014

February movies



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2007)

The German film The Lives of Others, directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, won the Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, and is a most worthy entry in Germany’s continuing dissection of its taxing past century. In 1984 East Germany (five years before the demise of the Wall and then the country) a stiff-necked Stasi (secret police) officer is given a surveillance assignment, to uncover the suspected subversive activities of a notable playwright and his girlfriend, an esteemed actress. The officer has little personal life or inspiration beyond occasionally hiring a whore, and he is strangely moved by the interaction of his two subjects. At the same time, he becomes attuned to the moral and ethical corruption of the system within which he’s spent his life, including the basically sordid motives behind the investigation. Eventually his spying starts to bear fruit, but instead of taking this back to his superiors, he fabricates bland reports. The complications that follow make for a fascinating narrative, loaded with significant moral and political weight.

The Lives of Others

The film depicts a ruling system that’s totally lost its ideological bearings, serving only to crush or warp everyone within it. At the start the playwright appears relatively content, subject to being allowed some minimum room for personal expression and some basic human tolerance; it’s only the excesses of the state, particularly in hounding a colleague of his to suicide, that radicalizes him. Likewise, the officer’s unquestioning loyalty starts to erode only when his superiors flaunt their pragmatism too blatantly. But the film is also I think about the power of art in a totalitarian state, for it’s clear that the officer – initially a strenuous Philistine – becomes infatuated with his subjects’ ability to connect, and comes to perceive his actions partly as his own aesthetic creation, played out with real lives and consequences instead of on a stage.

The Lives of Others is a film of drab grays, communicating the failure of the Socialist promise in every miserable frame. The trajectory of the officer, particularly as we follow the next ten years of his life in the film’s epilogue, has an almost Chaplin-like pathos to it at times. The film is too much an artistic creation to be completely convincing I think – there’s a considerable compression of events, and at times Henckel von Donnersmarck’s masterly control comes at the cost of a sense of spontaneity (although as I said, that’s part of the point). But these aren’t particularly significant caveats. Some people have said it’s the best film about surveillance since The Conversation, and although that may be true, I barely thought about that aspect of it at the time, perhaps because the bugging and snooping is so clearly a mere symptom of a society where all claim of meaningful self-determination has long been extinguished. As for the Oscar stakes, I think Pan’s Labyrinth would have been the better winner, for the greater breadth of its vision, but The Lives of Others is certainly one of the more deserving victors of the last twenty years.

Hannibal Rising

Hannibal Rising is the fourth film about the charismatically intellectual cannibal introduced in Manhunter and catapulted into legend by The Silence of the Lambs, this time going way back to his formative years in WW2 Lithuania. Hannibal is a nice little boy, living in the bosom of his family, and very protective of his little sister, which sets him up for psychological turmoil when he witnesses her being eaten by a bunch of scuzzy militia (led by my old schoolmate Rhys Ifans). Hannibal grows up in an orphanage, eventually hooking up with his aunt by marriage, played by Gong Li, weirdly out of place in such tacky material, but no less fascinating for that. He goes to medical school and then of course embarks on the quest to track the scumbags down one by one, along the way becoming more depraved at every turn.

As others have pointed out, there’s something very wrongheaded about trying to devise a quasi-respectable, psychologically motivated background for a character who so inherently epitomizes high-end pulp fiction, and the film’s painterly aspects just compound this nonsense. The movie’s biggest act of cannibalism is in taking director Peter Webber, so promising at the helm of Girl with a Pearl Earring, and corralling him into this; it’s well enough put together, and surprisingly (pointlessly) restrained at times, but never has zero potential of transcending extreme wretchedness. Hannibal is played by Gaspard Ulliel, who’s allowed to embarrass himself with shallow, grimacing work.

Factory Girl

Factory Girl is another visit to the (apparently) endlessly fascinating milieu of Andy Warhol and the Factory, this one focusing on Edie Sedgwick who was his golden girl for a few years before they drifted apart, precipitating her decline into drugs and premature death. Sienna Miller plays Edie, and she’s quite good on the downslide, but never conveys what made Edie seem quite so special in the first place. This is largely the fault of a vague, rushed narrative that lacks much period flavour, depth or continuity. Try to imagine how such a movie might look – the big close-ups of Edie talking to the camera (via her therapist), the highs of activity captured in snappy musical montages, the traumatic drugged-out scenes, the embarrassing public flame-outs, it’s all here, exactly as you’re visualizing it right now.

Guy Pearce plays Warhol, and he’s pretty good, but the film doesn’t seem interested in more than the same old Warhol mannerisms and affectations (maybe it’s because I saw the very good David Cronenberg-curated exhibition at the AGO last year that this all seemed particularly shallow and pointless). And then Hayden Christensen plays a version of Bob Dylan, which is just an utter waste of celluloid. As directed by George Hickenlooper, the film feels pretty pleased with itself, but I can’t think of one good reason to see it.

The Russian film The Italian belongs comfortably in the long tradition of films that depict childhood innocence and resourcefulness in strained or violent circumstances. The setting here is a miserable modern-day orphanage, from which the prize children are sold off to wealthy foreign couples; one boy is designated for Italy, but instead becomes preoccupied with finding his birth mother, and takes off on an unlikely quest. The film is a sobering depiction of a coarse, often violent environment, in many ways on the verge of breakdown, although the focus on the boy prevents it from getting too heavy. The happy ending is unconvincing but not grating in the circumstances, because the underlying point seems to be about the need to transcend these sad truths, and to do that within Russia’s own confines rather than through soul destroying transactions with the rest of the world.