(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 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.
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.