Sunday, November 29, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Four



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2002)

This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

Kedma (Amos Gitai)
Gitai’s latest exploration of Israeli history is much more successful than last year’s Eden, although that’s largely a result of visceral pleasures: his one-take approach to battle scenes, for example, is almost unmatched (and I include polished films like Saving Private Ryan). Actually starting with a virtuoso single take, aboard a ship bringing a group of refugees to Israel, the film follows some of the group as they evade British soldiers and then travel toward a kibbutz, encountering Arab resistance on the way. The film is extremely similar in tone and style to Gitai’s earlier work Kippur: well-staged action alternates with debate and soul-searching, and the dialogue can seem very forced at times. In general though, Kedma effectively sets out the contradictions at the heart of modern Israel, never more so than in an anguished closing monologue (“I think that Israel isn’t a Jewish country anymore”) on how Jews are pushed to violence (Jewish history is “a history imposed by goyim”). And the film inevitably gains power from its foreshadowing of current conflicts. “We’ll remain here in spite of you,” shouts an old Arab at the Jews who stole his donkey in the course of their journey, “like a wall…we’ll be hungry, we’ll be in rags. But we’ll defy you.”

In America (Jim Sheridan)
An Irish couple and their two daughters settle illegally in New York (fortunate enough to find a large vacant apartment on their first day). They live on a shoestring, always haunted by the recent accidental death of their young son. For all of their troubles, New York remains a largely mystical atmosphere, especially with the mysteriously charismatic black painter living downstairs, and there are suggestions of celestial forces weaving through their lives (aren’t there always?) The print shown at the festival qualifies “In America” as a working title – maybe the final title should be “In Dreams,” because this sentimental romanticizing of poverty doesn’t seem to have much to do with real life as I’ve ever seen it. Ambling along as these anecdotal kinds of films always do, it has the occasional good scene, but the grander ambitions fall flat. Key among these is a concept of the father as closed-off and distant, so unable to engage with life that at one point his daughter accuses him of being an impostor; but it doesn’t come across, maybe because actor Paddy Considine seems even more stilted than the character he’s playing. It adds up to a vastly derivative project, teetering under the layers of uplifting mysticism that Sheridan has it carry.

Secretary (Steven Shainberg)
Shainberg’s debut film, about the sado-masochistic relationship between a bottled-up lawyer and the disturbed young woman who comes to work for him, could be seen merely as a catalogue of kinky ideas, and perhaps can’t be seen as much more than that. So the value judgment all depends how you respond to the movie’s extremely accommodating attitude. Personally, I liked it nearly all the way along, with doubts really only arising over the ending, which casts the final state of the relationship in rather conventional terms. In particular, the final shot, in which she stares straight into the camera, daring us to judge her, is too strenuous a statement of feminist credentials. That’s nearly the only unsatisfying shot of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, who seems to have figured out every nuance of her character. James Spader initially seems to be playing his part more conventionally and superficially, but this is but one of many ways in which the film’s deftness might initially be underrated. Some of the weirdest (which I guess equals the best) ideas are almost thrown away, which must be a sign of confidence. The film has already opened commercially since the festival, and it’s taken some knocks for its exploitation aspects; your enjoyment of the movie should be pretty closely correlated with your tolerance for the premise.

Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
Miyazaki’s feature-length animated film has also opened commercially since the festival (where it played as Miyazaki’s Spirited Away). It’s the biggest hit of all time in Japan, and in the recent Sight and Sound poll it received three votes as one of the best ten films of all time. I’m no anime connoisseur, and this film’s veins of cuteness, occasional visual flatness, and general weirdness could confirm one’s prejudices – if you ignored the genuinely unique, seemingly otherworldly imagination on display here. It’s about a young girl who wanders with her parents onto what they think is an abandoned theme park – the parents find and eat some food that changes them into pigs, and she finds herself working in a bathhouse for the spiritual world. Miyazaki has worked out every detail of the environment: the film has eye-popping spirits, and explanations of the water-pumping system; boys that turn into flying dragons, and railway systems that aren’t what they used to be. This has its serious undertones – the festival brochure cites “the strength and insight of innocence…the disintegration of religious faith and other forms of spirituality.” But I question whether the film’s mysticism and theme of belief in oneself are inherently that profound. The magic is in Miyazaki’s almost disturbingly uncategorizable creativity, and a visual style that perfectly expresses both the simplicity and complexity of his sensibility. I enjoyed Spirited Away as much as an animated film I’ve ever seen.



The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismaki)
Kaurismaki’s latest film initially resembles a piece of baroque science fiction – a man gets beaten up, is declared dead, comes back to life but without any memory of who he is, and establishes a meagre living for himself, including a mild romance with a Salvation Army worker. As he becomes more secure in his new identity, the film becomes looser and more discursive – and, for me, distinctly less interesting. Much of the second half consists of musical performances by a Salvation Army band that he coaxes onto a more popular style – they’re nice enough songs, but it’s indicative of a somewhat flabby movie. One of the picture’s abiding pleasures is its cinematography – especially in the early stretches, containing some of the most vivid colour compositions since The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Sadly, the film seems to tone this down as it progresses, perhaps as another reflection of his escalating normalization. And although the Festival brochure promised “one of the great performances by a dog on screen,” the dog too fades away as the movie goes on. The film starts off as one of Kaurismaki’s most muscular and striking works and ends up seeming run-of-the-mill for him – it adds up to a highly watchable but disappointing effort.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Three



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2002)

This is the third of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

Ten Minutes Older: the Cello (Bernardo Bertolucci, Claire Denis, Mike Figgis, Jean-Luc Godard, Jiri Menzel, Michael Radford, Volker Schlondorff, Istvan Szabo)
A film consisting of eight short segments by eight famous directors. Like most previous exercises along these lines, it’s a disappointment, evidencing little inherent reason for existing. The segments all deal in some way with the “phenomenon of time,” but this vague mandate isn’t enough to lend the project much coherence. The best are probably Bertolucci’s – an elegant glide through episodes in the life of an immigrant – and Godard’s: working in the kind of collage-form he’s used on many other occasions, he expands the scope and emotional resonance of his segment beyond what the others achieve. Radford comes in a surprising third, using an old-hat science fiction premise but at least investing his sequence with good design and mild panache. As for the rest: Figgis uses the same four-screen/one-take technique he used in Time Code – nothing new ensues. Menzel juxtaposes scenes from the life of a Czech actor, achieving only mild poignancy (although I note that this sequence made the woman beside me cry). Szabo’s is a well-handled but basically mediocre one-take melodrama about how quickly a life falls apart. Denis’ segment is all talk. Schlondorff’s juxtaposes a banal voice-over with a banal series of images – the only distinction being that the sound and image are banal in quite different ways. For all its philosophizing, the film’s main contribution to the study of time is to raise the question of how such a film can seem to last so much longer than it actually does.

Julie Walking Home (Agnieszka Holland)
Holland’s film is about the fragility of both the secular and the spiritual; about how slight shifts in the equilibrium cause calamitous shocks. It’s not really that distinctive a theme, especially when presented in what is by now her familiarly overwrought style (see for example her last film The Third Miracle). Miranda Otto and William Fichtner are common-law spouses whose happiness is torn apart by his one night stand – then their son is diagnosed with cancer. She takes him to Poland in search of a famous faith healer who falls in love with her. Much about the picture – the mix of accents, locations, tone and ideas – has the feel of something pulled together to satisfy a committee of competing interests, although the competition may all dwell within Holland’s own sensibility. Her film has excellent moments (Otto is especially striking, almost frightening, in her seductress mode) but it becomes increasingly clear that the film has nowhere in particular to go. Like the birds to which it returns as a motif, it merely circles, before choosing a resting point that may be either arbitrary or deliberate (a distinction that may matter to the bird, but not to the onlooker).

Lilja 4-Ever (Lukas Moodysson)
Swedish prodigy Moodysson show here that he can work in a much darker register than his first two films, Show me Love and Together. The film tracks a miserable three months in the life of a 16-year-old Russian girl, who’s left alone when her mother skips with her boyfriend to the States. With no source of income, she slides easily into prostitution: the film is especially strong on depicting the near-inevitability of this fate for women in dire circumstances. When she finally meets an apparently nice guy who says he’ll find her a job in Sweden, he turns out to be a procurer of child whores. It’s gloomy subject matter, with almost every scene yielding some new tragedy or squalor. The young actress Oksana Akinshina is disconcertingly unemotive through most of it. But the film is ceaselessly perceptive and sensitive, without ever becoming sentimental, not even when it depicts her visions of the over-dosed friend she left behind, now sporting angels’ wings. The film was one of my favourites of the festival – not as artistically imposing as Talk to her or Dolls, but bringing a strong individual voice to a work of diligent anthropology.

Marie Jo and Her Two Loves (Robert Guediguian)
Every year, the festival selects one director for its retrospective spotlight feature. Guediguian, this year’s choice, sets all his films (the best known is Marius and Jeanette) in working-class Marseilles, and generally works with the same actors – his work thrives on intimate recognition. His latest is no exception. It’s the story of a woman simultaneously in love with her husband and another, finding that the weight of her love carries an inverse correlation to that of her happiness. “I only feel at peace when I make love,” she says, “otherwise I suffer.” The movie portrays this state adeptly, and is equally good at depicting the loneliness of being the man she’s not currently with. Guediguian paces things deliberately (some would certainly say slowly), spending much time on the details of their jobs and on inconsequential moments. He achieves the authenticity for which he aims, but can’t dispel a sense of familiarity (whether measured against his own previous work or that of others who’ve explored this territory). Towards the end, Marie Jo’s daughter erupts at her parents in idealistic disgust, and you realize how muted the film has generally seemed prior to that point. And while it seems clear that the director might profit from expanding his range, the swirling tragedy of this film’s final image isn’t a particularly effective step in that direction.



La ville est tranquille (Robert Guediguian)
The spotlight on Guediguian also included this film from 2000 – perhaps his most ambitious and most successful. A social epic along the lines of John Sayles or Robert Altman’s films, it weaves together some grim and often heart-rending stories of people trying to get by. A woman who works at the fish market prostitutes herself to buy drugs for her addicted daughter; a laid-off dockworker tries to make it as a cab driver but sinks into financial troubles; a black man is released from prison. Right-wing politics percolate in the background. The director’s at full strength here; intently focused on his characters, allowing us to feel the quiet desperation that mainly defines their lives (the muted quality of Marie Jo is more successful here because we understand it as a reflection of demands and pain that defy words), tracking occasional eruptions of joy and hope, of pain and despair. The film has a slight penchant for melodrama, which threatens to disrupt the verisimilitude, and the hopeful final image seems a little idealistic, but Guediguian doesn’t pretend there are easy answers for any of this, and his film as a whole seems wise and balanced.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Two



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2002)

This is the second of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

All or Nothing (Mike Leigh)
Leigh’s last film Topsy Turvy was an unexpected departure for the master of low-income British angst, and a complete success. The new film, back on familiar territory, inevitably looks like treading water by comparison. It’s loosely structured around three miserable families in a drab London housing complex – they drink or eat too much, or lose themselves in sexual role-playing, or in random anger, or superficial good spirits, or just in all-consuming inertia. Timothy Spall plays a cab driver, trapped in his own misery, avoiding all responsibility. Sensing himself on the verge of disappearing completely, he finally breaks out, resulting in a series of scenes that, if a little over-emphatic, almost rank with Leigh’s best work. That plot strand arrives at a generally happy ending, but Leigh lets the other two stories drop completely; in cinema as in life, he seems to be saying, positive outcomes are largely a matter of chance. Like every Leigh film, All or Nothing is crammed with fine moments that shine a passing spotlight on a secondary character, anchoring the film in the world beyond the frame. But it has a more muted tone than most of his work, making less overt use of comedy, and most viewers will find it less insinuating than something like Secrets and Lies.

Too Young to Die (Park Jin-Pyo)
This Korean film has a simple purpose – to celebrate the love of a man and a woman. This is out of the ordinary only because the couple are in their 70s, and they have a lot of sex. It shouldn’t be a surprise that older people can do it multiple times a week, sometimes a day (the man helpfully marks each session off on his calendar so we can follow along), but if it wasn’t a surprise the film presumably wouldn’t exist. It’s somewhere between documentary and fiction – seeming to have a script, but played by a real life couple who aren’t professional actors. Objectively, it’s a pretty voyeuristic project (the film shows the sex in some detail), but it doesn’t feel that way, mainly because the couple (especially him) are so happy to show themselves off. For the sake of balance, the picture shows a few rough patches, such as a spat about her staying out too late with her friends. But if it was ever in doubt that the movie takes a sentimental view of its subjects, then the incredibly sappy closing song would wipe it away. Almost incidentally, you notice that their living conditions are pretty meagre, and there’s the odd reminder of cultural differences (when he wants to make her a chicken dinner, he buys a live bird and slaughters it in the yard) but these observations come only intermittently, amid the calculated universal appeal.

Auto Focus (Paul Schrader)
Schrader (who made American Gigolo and one of my all-time guilty pleasures, the remake of Cat People) ought to be the ideal director to film the story of Bob Crane, the genial stay of Hogan’s Heroes who became obsessed with sex and pornography as his career declined. Auto Focus tells the story efficiently and intriguingly, but it doesn’t particularly look like a Schrader film; it doesn’t seem interested in plumbing the depths of Crane’s soul, and the echoes of Bresson that used to mark Schrader’s work are just a memory here. In a way, Schrader should be praised for his self-effacement. He certainly captures both the bounce and optimism of Crane’s rise to fame in the 60’s, married to his college sweetheart with no darker secrets than a few racy magazines hidden in the garage, and the tackiness of his decline in the 70’s. But this isn’t a chronicle of the age like Boogie Nights – it’s a rather hermetic story of one sad figure, and in telling it so straight, Schrader risks our indifference. Willem Dafoe is rather one-dimensional as the hedonist who led Crane astray, and Greg Kinnear’s performance in the lead role sums up the picture – wholly convincing as the nice guy, but generally just too convivial and straightforward to be particularly interesting. There are many good moments though – his meltdown on the set of Celebrity Cooks, hosted by Bruno Gerussi, is especially well caught.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce)
Noyce used to make provocative little Australian films, but in recent years he’s been the anonymous general behind such epics as Clear and Present Danger and Silver. This film marks a home-coming: it’s about three half-Aboriginal girls in 1931, sent 1,800 miles from their home to a special school for “half-castes.” The film makes it clear that there were many such “shadow children,” and has a chilling scene where Kenneth Branagh, as the leader of the cleansing program, explains the official philosophy on the matter. The children escape and set off to walk the vast distance home. Most of the film is devoted to their journey and how they evade the state’s efforts to catch up with them – including a veteran tracker played by David Gulpilil, who starred thirty years ago in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout. The film is gripping, and evokes suitable anger at what the children endured. But maybe Noyce has become too efficient a storyteller – you feel very little of the passage of time, or the incredible distance they covered, or of their hunger or thirst. This is one of the rare films that’s actually too short – we feel short-changed on the bigger picture of Australia at the time, the visceral experience of the journey, and the story’s potentially mythic underpinnings. The evocation of Walkabout reminds you how that and other movies found real grandeur in the desert.



Waiting for Happiness (Abderrahmane Sissako)
Mauritanian director Sissako’s film is suffused in ambivalence about Africa – he celebrates its beauty and mystery, but constantly returns to images of departure and escape (or more frequently, failed attempts at departure) and thoughts of a different life. The film is loosely structured, and the exact meaning of what we’re watching isn’t always clear – the most recognizable plot strand involves a young boy serving as apprentice to an aging electrician, accompanying him from job to job. Initially the film may seem opaque, but you adjust to its rhythm. It’s crammed with gorgeous images, such as the electrician and the boy hooking up a light bulb to an outlet and then carrying it into the desert for what seems like miles. It’s a dream-like Africa, encompassing desert and city and village and the water’s edge – parameters that hold the characters in place even as their parched spirits tell them to move on. The old man remembers a friend who offered him the chance to leave; finally the friend went without him, never to be seen again. “Maybe that’s what weighs on my heart,” he says: it’s the skill at depicting this weight through images that makes Waiting for Happiness such an eloquent work.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

2002 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part One



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2002)

This is the first of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2002 Toronto Film Festival.

Ararat (Atom Egoyan)
Egoyan’s opening gala presentation certainly doesn’t seem like the work of a great filmmaker; it evokes instead a disgruntled academic translating his theories onto celluloid. Set in present-day Toronto, it examines the continuing spiritual and emotional impact of Turkey’s massacre of Armenians in 1915. Characters include a director (Charles Aznavour) who’s making a film on the subject, an art history professor (Arsinee Khanjian) who’s a consultant on the picture, and her troubled son. Ararat doesn’t purport to present the objective truth of what happened in 1915, and acknowledges that there are problems in the historical record; it dwells on the difficulties of sustaining memory and remembrance. That aspect of Egoyan’s film is fairly interesting, but it’s filtered through some very cumbersome emotional set-ups and bizarre artistic decisions (for example, much of the film consists of a labored dialogue between the son and an overbearing customs officer played by Christopher Plummer). The messiness isn’t without consolations, but it makes for a distinctly dutiful, visually undistinguished viewing experience. The use of the film within the film, including a gala premiere at the Elgin, seems like mere navel-gazing, but then Egoyan doesn’t exhibit much sense of the real world – you’d think from Ararat that 1915 was the number one conversation topic in our city.

Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar)
Almodovar has mastered the art of making outlandish narratives seem as natural and graceful as a dance. His new film, in which dance is actually woven prominently into the design, revolves around two men, both in love with (wait for it) women in comas. One (who, in typical Almodovar fashion, thinks of himself as being more gay than straight) sees this state as an enhancement rather than an impediment; the other is understandably more ambivalent. Events build to a shocking violation that Almodovar somehow manages to render smooth and understandable. He has the old-fashioned virtue of liking his characters – his benevolence is almost boundless, sometimes to the point of foolhardiness. But this is as beguiling a movie as he’s made (even after the clear artistic advances of Live Flesh and All About my Mother). It shifts gears and perspectives with imperceptible ease, sliding forwards and backwards in time in a way that makes most narratives of that type seem highly self-conscious. It’s poised and consistently beautiful, even if the broader insights (the title sets out the main message – the importance of communication) don’t amount to much.

10 (Abbas Kiarostami)
It’s always in question whether Western viewers appreciate the work of an Iranian director like Kiarostami too much through our own prism (reflecting our own morals, ethics, aesthetic tradition, sexual politics, received notions about Iran). This may be especially tempting with his new film 10 (not a remake, obviously, of the Blake Edwards semi-classic), which consists solely of ten one-take scenes of a divorced woman, driving in her car with various passengers. In the first scene, her young son lambasts her as a bad, stupid mother; shortly afterwards she picks up a whore who scoffs at her moralistic questions. Later on in the film, the son again criticizes her for various things, but by then she takes it much more in stride. In the later scenes she counsels a distraught woman not to depend so much on just one person, and advises another to loosen her veil (which in such a physically controlled film generates considerable visual excitement). As the film progresses, the increasing use of cross-cutting between characters seems to reflect a growing sense of security and engagement on her part. The film thus appears to be primarily an illustration of a woman’s growing sense of self-determination as she adjusts to life on her own, but I suspect it may be subtler than a single viewing can appreciate. Intriguing as 10 is, I think many Kiarostami fans may miss the broader canvases of his earlier work.

Lost in La Mancha (Keith Fulton and Luis Pepe)
In 2000, director Terry Gilliam finally rolled film on his long-cherished adaptation of Don Quixote. The project came with an unrealistic budget, inadequate rehearsal and preparation time, looming chaos, and memories of his 1989 over-budget fiasco The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (which earned him a reputation as an undisciplined enfant terrible, not overcome by subsequent relatively saner projects such as The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys). The first day saw a freak storm that instantly threw the schedule into disarray. By the end of the first week, lead actor Jean Rochefort was in the hands of his doctors with a herniated disk. The film struggled on through a sixth day before collapsing completely, sending millions of dollars and Gilliam’s dreams down the tubes. Miraculously, Fulton and Pepe had cameras rolling on the whole thing, resulting in one of the most vivid portrayals of filmmaking ever made. Gilliam starts off somewhat enamoured of his own legend (“Without a battle, maybe I don’t know exactly how to approach it”); when on the first day he asks how they’re doing for time and the response is “Bad,” Gilliam reflexively snaps back “Good.” His childish giggle when something goes well is infectious. But as disaster engulfs the project he seems overwhelmed, almost paralyzed. His Don Quixote film, from what we see of it, would probably have ended up much like Munchhausen – a treat for Gilliam fans, mainly a curio for anyone else; the fact that we’ve been denied that film, but given Lost in La Mancha instead, probably isn’t a bad trade-off.


Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach)
At the age of 66, Loach is working faster than ever, alternating missions into unfamiliar territory (Spain in Land and Freedom, Los Angeles in Bread and Roses, one of his least successful efforts) with projects on home ground (or at least Scotland, which is close enough). Sweet Sixteen doesn’t have much new about it, but it’s expertly handled; no one captures the aspirations (or profanity) of the British under-privileged as expertly as Loach. It follows a boy gravitating from selling smuggled cigarettes to upward mobility in the local drug syndicate, all before turning 16. He dreams of seeing his imprisoned mother free and clean, but sees no irony in getting her there on the backs of junkies. Actually, irony isn’t really one of Loach’s standard tools (compared say to skillful tub-thumping) although the situation provides it in abundance (“I used to watch my dad do this,” says a young pusher nostalgically, as he cuts the heroin). Loach’s biggest weakness, for me, is his propensity for gangster figures and their attendant melodrama. Still, this is a consistently gripping, moving work.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Seven current movies



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in September 2002)

Last week I wrote about the difficulties of getting one’s money’s worth out of a DVD collection, given that the new movies keep on coming. Here’s more evidence: seven mini-reviews (count em!)

Happy Times
Readers may remember an article, a few years ago, in which I put together a fictional list of directors that might have won the Nobel Prize for cinema, if such a thing existed. My 1996 winner was China’s Zhang Yimou, a choice that now makes my imaginary committee look severely impulsive. Since then, Zhang has made various small-scale films that bear the limitations of trying to work within the Chinese State system, and he’s seemed increasingly sentimental. His latest marks a further regression, back to the emotional values and overall sophistication of, well, the silent era. A bachelor in his 50s sets out to get married, but instead ends up taking care of a blind girl who’s been mistreated for most of her life. Having lied about his resources and status, he creates a series of illusions to hide the truth from her. The movie’s main point of distinction is its highly contingent happy ending. It’s not that the film’s bad exactly – it’s just awfully minor and unambitious. I might not have minded it at all, if I hadn’t kept kicking myself for letting my Nobel jurists lose their heads over his earlier work.

Sunshine State
John Sayles’ cross-section of small-town Florida life seems less accomplished than earlier films of his like Limbo, Lone Star or City of Hope, which executed similarly ambitious exercises in Alaska, Texas and New Jersey respectively. Having said that, Sayles seems on this evidence to consider Florida a less accomplished place – a blandly low-input and low-return would-be paradise where sterile design destroys all sense of history, place and community. The film follows four or five main plot strands, although nothing tops the brief glimpses of a local dignitary’s compulsive suicide attempts. The film peters out more than it actually ends, but that seems like Sayles’ final comment on the state – where he sealed off his Alaskan movie Limbo with a grand metaphysical flourish, he lets his Florida movie fizzle and dissipate. Sunshine State also contains a hearty dollop of what seems pretty much like standard melodrama; it’s always been Sayles’ oddity that he insists on his integrity as an independent filmmaker, who then makes movies the greater part of which could fit quite comfortably into the mainstream.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding
A bit fat box-office hit, which does as much as any bland action blockbuster to show how undemanding audiences can be. I didn’t register a single original joke or observation in this compendium of clich├ęs and platitudes about the travails of an ethnic family (you’ve seen the same thing done with Jewish weddings, and Italian weddings, and gay weddings…) Familiar Toronto locations (subbing for Chicago) and faces make it even less convincing for local audiences. Nothing in the movie is quite right – lead actor John Corbett overdoes the laid-back charm, and lead actress and writer Nia Vardalos overdoes her initial frumpiness and thereafter underdoes whatever quality is supposed to have snared Corbett. And after plodding through the build-up to the wedding, the event itself is over almost before it’s begun. Maybe if I were Greek it would have seemed like a masterpiece of observation, although I have a Greek friend, and she sure doesn’t act that way.

The Believer
At the time of writing I haven’t actually seen the end of this film. With no more than ten minutes to go, the Varsity projector broke down and they couldn’t get it back up. Still, I saw enough to know that The Believer is a near-must see. An astonishing creation about a Jew who embraces Nazism, the film is the most articulate of the year, and one of the most subtly perverse: the character’s escalating violence and radicalism coexist with a longing to reimmerse himself in Judaism. Ryan Gosling gives a fine, fiery performance in the title role. The film is sometimes too cluttered, and events take place on such a melodramatic scale that they threaten to swamp the character, but the worst never happens (not up to the last ten minutes anyway).

Signs
It’s a hit, and some think that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan is the next Spielberg, but I found this film dreary, shallow, and unremittingly pretentious. Its central notion about faith and predestination is inherently no more than earnest in a first-year philosophy student kind of way, but Shyamalan’s genius is to set this against the backdrop of an alien invasion of Earth, thus ensuring goofiness just one notch short of Edward D. Wood. And the sillier the thing gets, the more seriously it seems to take itself. Mel Gibson’s solemnity fits right in with the prevailing gravity. As for the Spielberg comparison, I’m not among the greatest aficionados of Minority Report, but that film outclasses this one by every worthwhile criterion. By the end of this preachy, self-regarding farrago, I started to dislike Shyamalan personally.

Blood Work
Clint Eastwood’s new film, on the other hand, is a model of self-effacement. This thriller about a retired cop who investigates a woman’s murder (while carrying her donated heart in his chest) has a pretty intricate plot, but lets it unwind with so little emphasis and elaboration that you could almost miss it. This lets some potentially interesting elements go floating away, but leaves behind something most intriguing – a tersely written and shot procedural that nevertheless feels like a character piece. The trouble is that the characters are distinctly sleepy. As recent Eastwood movies go, Blood Work is more unified than Absolute Power or True Crime, although the zest of James Woods in the latter would have given the new film a welcome shot in the arm.
 


Possession
Another inherently odd project – a literary detective story contrasting a modern-day love story between two academics (Aaron Eckhart and Gwyneth Paltrow), and the object of their investigation: a 19th century romance between two poets. The film is directed by the normally acerbic Neil LaBute, and often seems like a change of pace for its own sake – it takes considerable pleasure in the eccentricity of British high-cultural circles, which seems here as deviously political as the white-collar slaying ground LaBute depicted in In the Company of Men. Perhaps appropriately, most of the film consists of elements that are interesting mainly in theory. It has its moments of grace, but never overcomes – and indeed apparently welcomes – a pervasive diffident quality.