(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2006)
Richard E. Grant (from Withnail and I) makes his directorial debut with Wah-Wah, based on his own experiences growing up in Swaziland in the run up to independence in the early 1970’s. Gabriel Byrne plays the boy’s Jekyll and Hyde like father (the difference being the drink), Miranda Richardson his mother, and Emily Watson his stepmother after the first marriage falls into bitter oblivion. The film is pleasant and affectionate, but its basic reason for existing is a bit thin. The value of the project would seem to be in what it might have to say about the effect of colonialism on Africa, but the movie barely sets foot outside its toodle-pip British enclave (the title is Watson’s disparaging label for all the mannered baby talk), filling its time with largely familiar family dynamics. You feel happy for Grant that he got to make what resembles a dream project, filled with genial if conventional performances, but I doubt it’ll do that much for anyone else.
A Prairie Home Companion
Since Robert Altman is now 81, there’s always the possibility that each film he makes may be his last, and he keeps delivering sublime endnotes – the much underrated Cookie’s Fortune and Dr. T And The Women, Gosford Park, and now perhaps best of all, A Prairie Home Companion. I’ve never heard Garrison Keillor’s radio show, and can only imagine what resonance the film might hold for fans, but even taken in isolation it’s immensely rich and satisfying. The premise is that Keillor’s radio show is broadcast live every Saturday evening from a Minnesota theatre before a live audience, and it’s the last night – the developers are moving in. Meryl Streep (who is quite wonderful), Lily Tomlin and Woody Harrelson (who will make you chuckle more than you should at a series of dumb dirty jokes) are among the musical performers. Moving between on- and back-stage, Altman’s camera is in constant elegant motion, showcasing his undiminished powers of composition and coordination: it’s simply a beautifully executed work.
The film also features an angel who stalks the fringes of the show, played by Virginia Madsen. This is the film’s most criticized aspect, and indeed initially seems more than a little contrived. But with the arrival of Tommy Lee Jones (as the theatre owner, roughly representing the devil) the film’s cosmic aspirations take shape, and it becomes persuasive as an evocation of the spiritual stakes inherent in art. The theatre encompasses all of life – the characters spill out stories about their histories (perhaps true, perhaps not, but all related with conviction), a veteran performer dies backstage, Streep passes on the torch to her daughter (played by Lindsay Lohan). But Altman is realistic too: there’s no magical redemption here, and the characters’ status in the film’s epilogue is quite uncertain. Altman’s compositions make much use of mirrors, so that the images often have a potential probing intensity, but always leavened by the recurring grace and delight. Writers have questioned over the years what all of Altman’s virtuosity actually amounts to, but surely this can be laid aside now: he is just terrific at being old. This may not be the year’s best release (my own favourites so far are Cache, The New World, Gabrielle and The Proposition) but it’s probably the one I just plain loved watching the most.
Live and Become
On that subject, the summer’s big movies have mostly seemed to me even less interesting than usual (in fact I went all through June without being attracted to a single one of them, until Superman Returns at the very end – and more about that soon), but the limited releases have been just terrific. Another fine film, which hung out at Bayview for weeks on end, is Live and Become (Va, vis et deviens), directed by Radu Mihaileanu, about the growth to adulthood of a young Ethiopian boy who’s evacuated to Israel in the 1980’s under a false identity, leaving his mother behind in a refugee camp. It’s most interesting, and feels most closely observed, in the early stretches, showing the boy’s difficult integration; as it goes on, it becomes increasingly episodic (he’s on a kibbutz, then in Paris, then in combat, etc.) and even a little hackneyed at times. The filmmaking, in most respects, is merely conventional, and the analysis of Israel is not particularly piercing. But this is a truly stirring, moving case history, and I can’t imagine it not holding your attention.
Michael Cuesta got some attention a few years ago for L.I.E., a film of risky moral material (a middle-aged pedophile, presented straightforwardly and with some tolerance) that established a distinct and somewhat eerie sense of its Long Island setting. Cuesta now returns with Twelve and Holding, revolving around three young kids – the twin brother of one is killed, another tries to pull back from the brink of obesity, and another experiences her sexual awakening. Cuesta is obviously skillful and sensitive, and the film is well crafted, but it’s also increasingly melodramatic, pushing each of its plot strands to extreme if not grotesque lengths. The film remains grounded though – events that in other films would emanate operatic tragedy always seem here like symptoms of the reticent turbulence of kids stumbling for their place in the world. But for all its interest, there aren’t many moments in Twelve and Holding that fail to evoke other, overall more impactful treatments of such life passages.
I was surprised though how James Marsh’s The King gripped me. Early on, a young man called Elvis gets out of the Navy and presents himself to a righteous pastor as his son by a long-ago liaison; the pastor acknowledges the fact, but wants nothing to do with him. Elvis hangs round the neighborhood, living in a fleabag motel, and slowly starts to insinuate himself into the pastor’s family, through his naïve teenage daughter. It’s a nasty tale, although so meticulously handled that this may not dawn on you for a while; the nuanced portrait of fundamentalism really held my attention and intermittently made me think I was watching a film as good as Junebug. Gael Garcia Bernal is perfectly ambiguous as Elvis, William Hurt is fascinating as the pastor, and the film expertly withholds some shocks you expect while hitting you with a few you don’t. I suspect some may read this and think me a sucker, but Marsh made me a willing one.
Andy Garcia directed and stars in The Lost City, a would-be epic about the disintegration of a well-to-do Havana family as Castro comes to power. It’s moderately interesting, but very familiar and very slow moving; numerous scenes recall in particular the Godfather movies, not at all to the advantage of Garcia’s film. Bill Murray hangs around the film’s edges, cracking jokes; he’s so badly integrated with everything else that it seems almost like wayward genius. Almost.