Sunday, April 9, 2017

Real war



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

The other day I was watching Howard Hawks’ 1948 Red River – one of my favourite director’s best films. In the first half of the film, I always get lost in its feeling of authenticity – the stampede and the river crossing and all those epic views of the cattle traversing the desert. But of course, Red River isn’t “realistic” in the sense of aspiring to the pace and cadences of normal exchange. Hawks’ style was naturalistic in some ways, but he kept things within certain parameters of behaviour, generating a wholly distinct, recognizable stylization.

In Red River, it kicks in particularly in the last third, when a woman gets involved. She meets Montgomery Clift in the middle of an Indian attack, falls for him even though he’s brusque toward her, and by the end of the evening she’s in his arms. Then she sets the basis for a reconciliation between him and John Wayne. It’s scintillating as a study in character, but it’s clearly idealized, and in some ways it rubs oddly against the film’s more verisimilitudinous aspects. Rio Bravo, my favourite Hawks film, seems more unified – notionally a Western, but actually an almost abstract world where Hawks indulges his notions of character to the hilt.

Meaning of Right

A few days afterwards, I watched Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, and Red River came to mind in two ways. First, my wife had half-watched Red River, and when the Indians are circling the wagon train she remarked it looked like an old-fashioned view of natives – one that probably wouldn’t get put on screen today. Which may be true for the Indians, but Black Hawk Down’s portrayal of the Somalians as a similarly anonymous, gun-toting mob seemed awfully close to the same thing. And then, before going into battle, Josh Hartnett says how he “just wanna do it right today,” and I thought how much Red River cites the notion of being “good.” If you watch enough Hawks films, you figure out his meaning of “good.” The ambiguity of Black Hawk Down is whether you think it know the meaning of “right.”

Scott used to be regarded as a brilliant eye, whose visual mastery might compensate for lesser acuity in matters of character and storytelling. But the failure of 1492 and White Squall seemed to put paid to that phase, and he’s now reinvented himself as the ultimate Hollywood general – knocking out Gladiator, Hannibal and Black Hawk Down in less than two years. All three can probably be seen as pure hackwork. But if Black Hawk Down is hackwork, it’s such an accomplished example as to make the term meaningless.

The film, set in Somalia in 1993, is about a failed military mission – a group of mostly young Americans in Humvees and helicopters fly into the centre of Mogadishu, to capture a bunch of warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid’s lieutenants. The mission goes astray almost immediately, leaving many of the Americans holed up, trying to hold back bloodthirsty waves of Aidid’s supporters – it’s a land where bread is scarce but guns apparently plentiful.

State of Hostility

It’s a superb recreation, exhibiting only minimal contrivance; it evokes the sad desolation of Mogadishu and the pounding chaos of battle with equal skill. But there may never have been a war film so unconcerned with the broader context, with the political and strategic rights and wrongs. The film has an unusually long series of captions at the start, fixing the time and place and the approximate state of hostility, and again at the end. But in between, we just get the event itself. To the film’s detractors, this is a key point of moral as well as artistic weakness. This is Rick Groen in The Globe and Mail:

“Without any surrounding context – without a deeper characterization of the men or a proper account of the politics that brought them there – we’re left to respond to the blood and guts viscerally but not emotionally. The edge of our seat gets a strenuous workout, yet our heart and mind go pretty much untouched…if this is artistry, it comes perilously close to the spirit and intent of propaganda – a paean to the triumph of soldierly will.”

Maybe…and yet, if the blood and guts attains such realism, what artistic prodding should we need in order to respond emotionally? Isn’t our reason for grieving inherent in what’s being shown? Maybe that sounds like moralizing on my part, but I think it’s conceivably an artistic strategy by Scott.

Triumph of will

I started wishing he had gone even further with this – that the film was an even more aggressively self-contained, claustrophobic experience. It still has many of the trappings of the conventional war movie, albeit downplayed. There’s the motley bunch of recruits (although the film is mostly reticent about their backgrounds), the theme of naivete and bluster receiving a harsh wake-up call (at the start, the men are so nonchalant about the mission that they leave behind standard pieces of equipment), the contrast between the turmoil on the frontline and the general in his high-tech bunker, the pep talks and one-liners (“It’s what you do right now that makes a difference”). Saving Private Ryan contained two or three magnificent sequences, and a lot of mundane padding. Black Hawk Down sharply reduces the mundanity ratio, but it doesn’t find a new vocabulary of war – it doesn’t have the grand vision and shocking introspection of Apocalypse Now (but then, I query how “realistic” that film really is) or the troubled poetry of The Thin Red Line (ditto). I think it might have got there, had it taken its approach even further – to the point where character and personality might virtually disappear completely.



As it is, as I mentioned, character and personality disappear only among the Somalis. This too might have been a persuasive artistic strategy, if Scott didn’t sometimes seem to be personalizing them – through shots of children carrying guns, or in which a face is picked out of the crowd (usually just before being blown away). And a scene in which a captured soldier is interrogated, providing his captor the most dialogue of any Somali in the movie, may be the most clich├ęd in the picture. This aspect of the film ends up seeming confused and a little opportunistic.

The brutal reality leaves many of the Americans dead and serves as a rite of passage for the others. I suppose that amounts to the “triumph of soldierly will” in Groen’s phrase, but what is that really saying? Ultimately, Black Hawk Down illustrates the limits of setting so much store by authenticity. I expect the film can be read to support whatever preconception the viewer brings to it. Maybe that’s an artistic evasion by Scott, but it’s sadly not untrue to its subject.

2005 Toronto Film Festival Report, Part Eight


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2005)
This is the eighth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.

Les Amants reguliers (Philippe Garrel)

In my preview article I noted I'd never seen any of Garrel’s films, and was looking forward to remedying that here; the anticipation only grew after he won the Best Director award for this film at the Venice film festival (which ends during the first weekend of the Toronto fest). Regular Lovers is a long film (just under three hours) and I won’t claim that you don’t feel that length, but it’s a rewarding experience. The protagonist is a young poet (played by Garrel’s own son Louis), initially at the centre of the 1968 agitation – we see him burning cars, resisting the police, and ultimately evading capture after a long, skin-of-his-teeth chase. At this point he has every potential for cultural and political distinction, but this slowly dissipates; he lives with several like-minded friends in a large house owned by a rich friend, smoking drugs and languishing, and then he meets a woman with whom he falls in love, but whose presence only seems to increase his stasis (someone says that they are “losing the revolution indoors”). Despite the reciprocity of her love for him, her trajectory is much more familiar and coherent, leading to an inevitable outcome. The film is shot in luminous black and white, and it generally maintains a narrow tonal register; although the plot includes free love, the presentation is extremely chaste by contemporary standards (the only sex we ever see is on a package of dirty playing cards). This gives it a melancholy, repressed quality that’s effective in evoking the unfulfilled underpinnings of what might otherwise seem (as it did, for example, in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, which also starred Louis Garrel) as a lush wet dream of a lifestyle); the girl says at one point, a propos of nothing in particular, “It’s unbelievable, the solitude in every man’s heart,” and it’s this solitude, immune to all genres of revolutionary provocation, that ultimately claims the movie. Director Garrel (who lived much of this, and was in a long relationship with iconic singer Nico) certainly indulges himself here, and I find it difficult to make much of a guess as to what sense of him might emerge from viewing his more than twenty earlier works, but Regular Lovers at least was one of the highlights of the festival for me.

The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron)

This sweet-natured account of 50’s pin-up queen Page is intended as a “celebration” of her life, and so it is – it’s hard to imagine a more benign treatment of once-inflammatory material. Page was an aspiring actress who started doing glamour shots on the side and gravitated first to “tasteful” nudity and then to S&M, 50’s style (per the film at least, she was only incidentally troubled by, or even aware of, the use that male purchasers might have been making of this material). Meanwhile, she went to acting classes, using thoughts of Jesus for inner motivation. Gretchen Mol is very good as Bettie, achieving a complete immersion in the character; as someone puts it, she’s consistently successful in spending half the film nude without ever looking naked. The movie dramatizes anti-smut Senate hearings – soberly and diligently allowing the testimony of a grieving father who attributes his son’s death to the photographs’ influence – and has a vivid period flavour, but there’s not much sociological ambition on display here, and it ultimately feels like coasting for Harron (who was in more dialectical mode with her earlier films I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho) – the feminist angle is simply that regardless of what porn meant for women in the longer term, Bettie’s career made sense to her, and that’s all anyone needs to know. It’s not that I take issue with this...it’s just that it’s kind of limited. Unlike most biopics, there’s no end note on what happened to Bettie after she ended her career – the final mark of what might actually be an over-respectful treatment of her.

The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang)

When you’re seeing three or four films a day for ten days, you probably treat some of them less kindly than you should, and I’ve always thought I was too snippy two years ago about Tsai’s Goodbye Dragon Inn. Subsequently I’ve read many great accounts of it, and the programme book at the time said it had “the shape of an entrancing, wordless vision.” I wrote it had “just the shape of one, with the feeling of an absent centre.” This was surprising since I’d loved Tsai’s previous film, What Time Is It There, which I often found virtually hypnotic. And recently I rewatched his early movie Rebels of the Neon God, a film utterly anchored in a specific time and culture, with an aching identification for the people it follows, and at the same time utterly timeless, cultivating a transcendently perverse deadpan sensibility. 

Tsai is simply a terrific director. But the journey from Rebels to Dragon Inn illustrates a diminishing interest in the contours of the real world, and this perhaps troubling trajectory takes a further leap with The Wayward Cloud. The new film also ups the ante considerably on sexual explicitness, often to the extent of seeming rather callow and tawdry, but it comes together at the end with immense, unnerving authority. It’s another desolate urban landscape, apparently with no running water (meaning that bottled water litters virtually every scene) but with a surfeit of watermelons, the erotic possibilities of which are juicily seized. The film is a triangle of sorts, with a male porn actor at the centre, his female co-actress at the other, and at the other a restrained young woman with whom he develops a tentative mutual attraction.


The film is full of images of displaced, warped sexuality, often immensely well-conceived, and also (as in Tsai’s film The Hole) incorporates various throwback musical numbers that through their colour and panache further underline the wretchedness of the real world. But the implications of all this seem familiar, circling round well-marked territory, with the new relish for sexual excess serving as the only (questionable) point of advancement. But then there’s the ending. which is gripping, horrible, sick and nihilistic, all of which in the circumstances I’m offering up as a compliment; it ensures that the film leaves more chilling an after-effect than any of his previous works. Overall, in truth, I enjoyed this garish work more than the objectively superior Goodbye Dragon Inn. But Tsai pulls it off only by the skin of his teeth, and he is desperately in need of a new preoccupation.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Memories of Quentin



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2002)

An overdue mea culpa – I used to bash Pulp Fiction fairly often in these pages, usually as an example of an overrated triviality illustrating Hollywood’s loss of direction and higher purpose. I haven’t mentioned it for a couple of years at least now – maybe a sad sign of the effect of Quentin Tarantino’s Kubrick-like deliberation over his next project (out of sight, out of mind). But I watched the film again the other day, for the first time since it came out, and felt quite ashamed of my early carping. Sure, there’s a lot in it that’s self-indulgent, wantonly brutal and violent – the sheer confidence can become grating. But I think I vastly underestimated the film’s formal intelligence. It’s a remarkable mix of fluent storytelling and of longeurs that would be deadly boring, if not for Tarantino’s amazing ability to soak in the nuances and idiosyncracies of a particular situation.

Rewatching Pulp Fiction

Time and character and normal concepts of causation and motivation seem almost infinitely mutable and extendible in Tarantino’s hands – he strips the story down to its bones and lays them bare while simultaneously investing in them a stranger and more scintillating life. And even the mythic ambitions, Jackson’s quoting from the Bible and the strange suitcase and the guy in the basement and so forth, seemed much more compelling to me this time, validated by Tarantino’s almost transcendent mood and structure.

Best of all perhaps was the film’s extreme, glowing romanticism, especially in the sequence between John Travolta and Uma Thurman: it takes two extreme, nerve-ridden personalities and forges a real connection between them – before blowing it away again. As with the relationship between Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer, there’s no question that Tarantino believes in love even under extreme pressure, but he’s also aware of how malformed and objectively crazy the resulting relationships might be. In all, a great film, and I apologize for all my cheap cracks. It may be time now to look at Fight Club again as well.

Anyway, just thought I should get that off my chest. Pulp Fiction was of course an astonishing career resurgence for Travolta – there’s a real spontaneity and emotional nakedness in his work there (as well as fine, unpredictable comedy timing) and he should probably have won the Oscar for it. Since then. He’s been as great in such works as Primary Colors, She’s so Lovely and Get Shorty. But lately his work has severely waned. He was the best thing in Battlefield Earth, but his performance made only slightly more sense than the movie as a whole. In Swordfish he seemed complacent, bloated from too many early paychecks. I didn’t see Domestic Disturbance (why would anyone?) I doubt that much of interest will come from him in the near future.

The Shipping News

For a while, Travolta was attached to the film version of The Shipping News, but it didn’t work out and the role passed to Kevin Spacey. At this point, I think we should probably be grateful. When I think of Travolta in The Shipping News, my mind keeps defaulting to Demi Moore in The Scarlet Letter. But the gratitude is strictly relative, for I think the film would have been better off without Spacey too. Also without Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and the rest of its starry cast.

I haven’t read the book, but based on all accounts and on what filters through the film, it’s a fairly raw account of a physical and emotional unfortunate. The film is generally wistful – which is exactly the adjective that best applied to director Lasse Hallstrom’s last two films, The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. The Shipping News is much better than Chocolat, which seemed to me entirely inconsequential and manipulative. But there’s a frosted quality to it that holds most emotion at length.

Spacey plays a widower, lifelong deadbeat and father of a young girl who comes with his aunt to Newfoundland, the home of his ancestors. Although he has no journalistic experience, he finds work on the local newspaper, writing the shipping news. He slowly develops a relationship with a local widow played by Moore.

The film is inevitably very pictorial, but in the manner of a travel brochure, with bits of local eccentricity and legend dotted throughout. I don’t think it conveys the feel of Newfoundland nearly as well as New Waterford Girl captured the similar feel of Cape Breton. The comparison is instructive – for New Waterford Girl was a cheap, homely film with the confidence to experiment. Hallstrom’s biggest problem as a director, by far, is his adherence to traditional notions of accessible, sensitive storytelling. He is, very likely, the polar opposite of Quentin Tarantino is just about every way possible. You don’t get the sense that Hallstrom could possibly be enjoying himself that much on the set – he makes everything feel so strenuous.

Experimentation wanted

This doesn’t create the best environment for actors to do their best work. Hallstrom’s films have done well lately on scoring Oscar nominations (and a win for Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules), so the Academy doesn’t agree with me. But he plays safely into our expectations. Spacey gives a wounded puppy kind of performance; Moore is radiant. Both actors are too intelligent to convey the tentativeness that their characters seem to require. Most everyone else in the film looks too good (the authentically drawn and worried-looking Pete Postlethwaite, as a nasty colleague of Spacey’s, being the main exception).


There are real pleasures in the film though. I liked the depiction of Spacey’s growing confidence as he learns to work with words; how he finds a real personality in conjunction with an artistic one. The ensemble acting around the local paper is usually amusing. But the romance between Spacey and Moore seems distinctly undramatic. Except for some minor disagreement at the start, they’re always moving toward each other. In general, everything seemed overly compressed to me – the film should surely have been longer.

Actually, I’d like to see Quentin Tarantino direct something like The Shipping News. That sounds crazy, but he’ll surely never top what he’s done already in the lowlife stakes – and the long creative silence suggests he knows it. Pulp Fiction’s exquisitely tender and dreamy sequences between Bruce Willis and Marta de Medeiros showed Tarantino could maintain a softer mood without losing his head. He should give that part of himself a more extensive workout. The appeal of experimentation only goes so far though, for I have no desire to see what Lasse Hallstrom does with a Pulp Fiction-kind of script.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Jacques Rivette film



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2002)

Jacques Rivette is one of my favourite living directors, but of all my favourites he’s the one for whom I have the most work left to do. His new film Va savoir is the only one I’ve ever seen under a regular commercial release. I’ve seen seven others on video or DVD or at festivals, but that leaves many to go. Salvation may be near, for apparently there’s a Cinematheque Ontario retrospective coming up later in the year.

Rivette’s women

Given Rivette’s low profile in North America, he’s been quite well-served by DVD. It’s in this format that I recently saw his brilliant 1992 version of Joan of Arc – a film of great understatement, exactitude and care. It’s a fascinating exercise to compare the film to Luc Besson’s The Messenger – where Besson is bombastic and insistent, Rivette is sparse and matter-of-fact. At times he studies Joan as carefully as a psychoanalyst; at others, he recedes, allowing alternate interpretations to stand. It’s one of the great historical films of the last twenty years.

But he normally deals in contemporary subjects. Probably his best-known film is La belle noisseuse, a long exploration of the creative process, set around a model who poses nude for an aging artist. The film’s sensuality never obscures the rigour of its examination of gender relations and of the relationship of art and life. The theatre, where these intersect most directly and dynamically, turns up in many of his films. His films feel theatrical too – not in the sense of being stagy or uncinematic, but in that they have choreography and poise that walk an often-magical line between naturalism and artificiality.

By general consent, his masterpiece is Celine and Julie go Boating, a film I seriously need to see again. Two women slip into an imagined world that they summon up by sucking on strange candy. The film is as grainy, obscure and elongated as the most experimental cinema; it has a concept simultaneously goofy and brilliant, and it’s a complex text on femininity. Rivette has probably been more productively preoccupied by women than any other male director of his time, something exemplified by the Joan of Arc project, but also reaching back to his 1965 film The Nun, still a stunning depiction of a woman driven to the grave by societal pressure.

Gang of Four

These comments are more fragmented than I’d like them to be, but it just reflects how I’ve had to acquire my sense of Rivette. He seems to me a highly uninsistent artist – his films aren’t conventionally passionate or prescriptive; they reflect the open-mindedness of someone who has a generously expansive vision of both life and cinema. It follows that Rivette has shown limited regard for certain conventions – particularly normal movie length. His Out One, which I’ve never seen, ran for twelve hours and forty minutes (he later edited it down into a four hour and twenty-minute version). The films habitually run to three hours. David Thomson, calling Rivette the “most important filmmaker of the last thirty-five years,” cites “the uncompromising way that he has identified the future of film as something other than the two-hour work shown to paying audiences in special buildings, and telling tidy stories.”

But Rivette’s experimentalism shouldn’t obscure his humanism. Another film available on DVD, The Gang of Four, is one of his lesser-known works, but a sheer joy. It follows four young women, sharing a house while they study in the same exacting drama class. Like many Rivette films (right back to his first in 1961, Paris Belongs to Us), it introduces an odd conspiracy that tangles their lives into knots, but always returns regularly to the sanctuary of their endless rehearsals. The film makes countless points about the creation of reality and identity, but it’s also a captivating portrait of the four women (at times, watching Rivette doesn’t feel so very different from watching Eric Rohmer). The Gang of Four might be the film I’d recommend as the best introduction to Rivette – it shows his huge intellect at its most easeful. In general, Rivette seems to have been getting more benevolent as he gets older – one of his most recent films, Haut bas fragile, was a musical – and why not?

Which brings us to Va savoir. The film continues Rivette’s latter-day grace – it’s another story set around the theatre, with criss-crossing relationships and a focus on women. Jeanne Balibar plays an actress performing with an Italian troupe in Paris, sleeping with her director/co-star and perhaps rekindling a relationship with an old boyfriend. As the film progresses, the canvas widens to include other connections and coincidences. The film has twists and turns galore, and a bona fide happy ending.

Va savoir

Given everything I’ve said above, it’s obvious that I regard Va savoir as one of the best things you can currently do with your time, cinematically speaking. However, my immense desire to hype Rivette’s work must yield to honesty – good as the film is, I think it’s probably the least interesting of the Rivette films I’ve mentioned in this article. The film’s title translates as “Who knows,” which might indicate anything from a shrug to submission to ultimate mysteries.

But on this occasion, the film seemed more earthbound than I’m used to with him – the convolutions in the structure didn’t seem as philosophically or intellectually revealing. Of course, this may be the very reason that the film has found such popular acceptance. But even on that level, it’s probably not as engaging or as subtle as the recent The Taste of Others.

Still, it gives you a place to start. And I may change my mind about it, for as I sit here, I find myself thinking more and more about various moments in Va savoir. A young woman says to the director: “You are lucky to be someone else every night. And never really serious.” Thereafter, the two spend the film alternating between seeming to gravitate toward love and suddenly pushing each other away. In a way it’s the kind of device movies always use, but Rivette makes us feel the desperate exhilaration of this dynamic. And her reading of him as not being serious is of course an error – an error that Rivette himself might too easily attract.



The Gang of Four is dedicated to “the prisoners, to the one among them, to those who wait for them.” This supports several readings in the context of the film, but I like to think of the actresses, of those dedicated to their art, of Rivette himself as the prisoners he’s mainly thinking of. He’s captive to cinema, and yet far too great an artist to be limited by it. And following Rivette has necessarily involved far too much waiting, but it’s getting a little easier now.

(2017 comment – I still treasure Rivette as much as ever, but I’d write much of this article differently now)

Monday, March 13, 2017

Bad made good



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2001)

When I write about films, I suppose I tend to deal in absolute concepts of good or bad. I never feel very comfortable giving an opinion on whether something is “a good film of its kind,” although that’s basically the approach that, say, a reviewer for a daily paper has to take. The Outreach Connection allows me a little island of independence, and I’ve been lucky enough to occupy it on my own terms. I hope that after this long it’s an approach of interest to enough people to be worthwhile, but it wouldn’t cut it at the Toronto Star (fortunately, I have an actual paying job which doesn’t involve movies at all, unless you include watching the odd training video).

Crowe versus Penn

A comparison of two current films presents an interesting litmus test – A Beautiful Mind and I Am Sam. The first of these now seems to be the favourite to win the best picture Oscar. As I’ll write further next week, I like it well enough, although it seems to me far from the year’s best (I might place it around, say, no. 45). I Am Sam has basically received bad reviews – or rather, it’s received good reviews only from reviewers that nobody respects. I can’t see much at all to choose between the two. And I think that’s because I just don’t “get” that particular attribute that takes two films of broadly similar tone and content and thematic intent and makes one generally discernible as “sensible and intelligent” while the other is “manipulative and over-sentimental.”

That’s my first problem. My second problem, which is probably more my own idiosyncrasy, is that although I don’t have a basis for calling I Am Sam “better” than A Beautiful Mind, I definitely enjoyed it more. In part, it’s just because of the kind of quirks people argue pointlessly about over a few drinks – I find Sean Penn much more fascinating than Russell Crowe, that kind of thing. The second thing, which you can either buy into as a concept or don’t at all, is that it’s more interesting to me to think about I Am Sam than A Beautiful Mind, precisely because of its flaws. It’s not as deft, not as artful, not as sure of its tone; it doesn’t have things as well in place. But to me that’s a recipe for more provocative cinema.

There’s nothing profound about that – it comes from the same place as the old chestnut that you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. I’ve tried to argue this general viewpoint numerous times with people, but seldom get anywhere with it. Most people can accept that you’d like a movie despite its weaknesses, but not because of them. Or else they reserve such compromised affection for stuff like American Pie 2 and Steven Seagal, allowing a genetic affinity for the genre to override their own tastes. I do that sometimes too, but the column on such guilty pleasures will have to wait for another day.

I Am Sam

I should probably get specific now about I Am Sam. Basically, the film works much better if you view it as an absurdist comedy. I don’t think that’s the filmmakers’ intention though. Penn plays a man with the mental age of a 7-year-old, who has a one-night stand leading to the birth of a daughter. When the mother bails out, Penn brings her up by himself, with the help of an agoraphobic neighbour and his group of similarly learning-challenged friends. When the girl herself turns seven, she comes to the attention of social services, which quickly takes her away from her father into care. To fight his case, Penn lucks into obtaining the services of a high-powered, ultra-neurotic lawyer (Michelle Pfeiffer) with family problems of her own.

The thesis of all this is, more or less, that love is all you need (Sam is an obsessive Beatles fan who relates to much around him by applying Beatles lyrics or bits of folklore). As critics galore have pointed out, this is obvious nonsense, because Sam is objectively incapable of doing almost anything except providing a genuine but affectless love. It’s such nonsense that it’s better to treat the whole thing as a parody of liberal, heart-on-their-sleeve message movies. And that works, particularly since Pfeiffer does seem to be playing much of her part for laughs.

The movie has a light, caught-on-the-fly kind of shooting style, which rather contrasts with the somewhat deliberate writing style and the generally awful, gooey Beatles covers that drench the soundtrack. Whereas Penn is of course putting on a performance and looks like it, his friends appear to be played by men who are really learning-challenged – if they’re not, they’re certainly portraying that state more subtly and authentically than Penn does. Penn himself is the single most debatable thing in the film. He received a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best actor, so it must look pretty good to a lot of his peers.

Nightmare performance

But some find the performance unwatchable. This is Charles Taylor in Salon: “I don’t know the last time I’ve seen so disgraceful a display from a talented actor…Penn delves into mannerisms and vocal distortions with an appalling eagerness. He makes the classic mistake of playing the handicap instead of the person. An actor affecting this demeanor to make fun of a retarded man would be pilloried. Penn’s portrayal strikes me as equally insensitive. It’s the nightmare performance of 2001.”

I thought the performance was largely terrific, but I agree that it generally fails in creating a rounded character. But to me that helps neutralize the film’s sentimentality and turns it into something more abstract and stylized. At one point, Sam makes a surprisingly eloquent courtroom speech that’s soon revealed to be lifted from Kramer vs. Kramer, a movie he’s just seen. The odd thing is that the ending of I Am Sam relies on a sudden change of heart that also recalls Kramer. It seems that this must be connected in some way, as some kind of commentary on life vs. art, but it’s hard to see what sense that would make for such a film. But again, it works if you see it as a deliberate absurdity, as a narrative capitulation acknowledging how much Sam’s quest depends on impractical idealism.


The film’s title is the simplest assertion of an identity that if not asserted might be overlooked. And that sums up how the film works for me – there’s Sam with his quest, and the film seems to support it emotionally while demonstrating (inadvertently or not) its lack of merit. He’s embodied by an actor who (inadvertently or not) suggests how little “identity” the character has. And he moves through an incoherent world, following unanalyzable rules. Perhaps these are the characteristics of a bad film, but also of a rather fascinating one. And here’s one last confession: it may be the most transparently manipulative of weepies, but I Am Sam almost made me cry.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Interesting minds



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

A Beautiful Mind is one of the favourites for the Oscars, and probably deserves to win for best actor and best supporting actress at least. Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are both extremely resourceful and moving in their roles – there’s hardly a scene where one or the other doesn’t contribute something more surprising, subtle or moving than you would have expected.

Intellectual stature

It’s a very watchable movie all around. Crowe plays John Forbes Nash, a math prodigy who made several important breakthroughs in the 40s and 50s before his talents were severely compromised by acute schizophrenia. Nash drifted in and out of functionality for years before reemerging – his crowning achievement was the receipt of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1994. Connelly plays his wife, who put up with so many years of turmoil. The film is directed by Ron Howard, who sometimes takes the notion of smooth craftsman almost to a new height (Apollo 13) but generally doesn’t (The Grinch) – ED TV, one of his least controlled films, may be one of his most intriguing.

One of the film’s faults is highly predictable – it glosses over Nash’s work, giving little sense of his real contribution (based on what’s shown, “An Interesting Mind” would be a better title). There’s a good scene in which a friend’s flippant application of Adam Smith to a pick-up situation leads Nash to make a sudden breakthrough in bargaining theory, but that’s about it (except for numerous shots of blackboards filled with equations). And according to an article in Slate magazine, the scene I mentioned doesn’t actually convey Nash’s theories accurately.

And at the end, when Nash makes his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he says not a word about the work, devoting his (very brief) remarks entirely to love and the human spirit. I went on the Nobel website to see if Nash’s speech was on there; it wasn’t, but I feel confident the movie doesn’t quite capture the full scope of his remarks. Not that the movie leaves Nash’s intellectual stature in doubt (particularly given Crowe’s persuasiveness), but you feel a bit short-changed.

The film has also been criticized for whitewashing Nash’s sexual history, particularly his numerous affairs with men. The movie’s Nash might well be a virgin at the time he meets his wife (a relationship in which she makes almost all the running). This wasn’t really as bothersome to me here. It’s not like, say, The Hurricane, in which the historical distortions were central to the film’s effect. There may be a fine movie to be made of Nash’s sexual history alone, but it’s a peripheral matter here.

Inner Life

The focus of A Beautiful Mind is on Nash’s struggle with mental illness. As such, the biggest problem for me is inherent in the structure. Halfway through the film, we learn that some of what we’ve seen to that point (including some entire characters) was merely Nash’s delusion. It’s an effective dramatic revelation, and marks I think the turning point in the film. But it’s also somewhat manipulative, treating the “beautiful” mind as a variation on the reality-bending tricks that drive the likes of Vanilla Sky. The movie’s second half, once we know what we’re dealing with, certainly felt much more honest and potent to me.

I think the fact that Nash’s inner world looks just the same as the film’s depiction of the outer world points to Howard’s limitations as a director. The film should have provided a rare opportunity to visualize an extreme subjective state. Howard does do some neat little tricks that illustrate Nash’s ability as a code-breaker, through sheer will and brilliance coaxing hidden meanings and structures out of text and numbers. But since some of these hidden codes later turn out to be merely a product of Nash’s imagination, it’s not clear at the end whether this illustrates his brilliance or his madness (maybe the point is that the two can hardly be distinguished).

Taken together, these criticisms seem to indicate excessive caution on the part of the filmmakers. A Beautiful Mind is a superior mainstream movie, but I don’t think there’s anything in it that truly transcends that category. Still, it’s very moving in its latter stages, and the acting really is a sight to see.

In the Bedroom

Todd Field’s In the Bedroom is another best film Oscar nominee. A middle-aged couple struggle to come to terms with the murder of their son, by his lover’s ex-husband. The film’s raw materials are somewhat familiar, but it’s raised to another level by its sensitivity, intelligence and reticence. Liam Lacey’s comments in the Globe and Mail are fairly typical – he called it “an impressive achievement, first of all for the quality of real life, especially the force of grief, that it captures…there has probably not been a more adult American film made in the last year.” Slate’s David Edelstein went even further, calling it “the best movie of the last several years.”

Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson as the parents give generally quiet performances that occasionally erupt in anger and pain and frustration. The movie, similarly, starts in a gently paced depiction of a family and surrounding community, but becomes governed after the tragedy by shorter, more self-contained and pointed scenes. Although the film is in most senses slower and “smaller” than A Beautiful Mind, it creates a finer cinematic vocabulary. Field manages to support his actors fully (in general, the film seems driven by their needs more than A Beautiful Mind is driven by Crowe’s) without surrendering to them – you feel a deep-rooted fascination with the contours of their needs and secrets.


I don’t disagree with too much of the specific praise given to the film, but it seems I have a difference in how much value I place in its qualities. In the Bedroom seems to me inherently less interesting than say Chunhyang with its assured formal experimentation, or The Pledge with its metaphysical ambition, or Mulholland Drive with its overwhelming personal vision. And the last half hour of In the Bedroom, however well-executed, comes down to vigilantism. Not an old Charles Bronson cleansing shoot-em-up for sure – the ending here is ambiguous, seeped in uncertainty and self-delusion. Still, wouldn’t the most “adult American film” of the year work toward a more, well, adult resolution? See it and admire it, but retain a sense of proportion.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Different universes



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

On a recent weekend, I went to see both Todd Solondz’ Storytelling and Ulrich Seidl’s Dog Days. Well, I’ve never been accused of going to movies just for the spiritual uplift, but maybe this was taking things a little too far. Each film has a caustic view of mankind; each is uncompromising in its own way. But not too unsurprisingly, the European film’s notion of uncompromising comes from an entirely different universe than that of the American one.

Dog Days (an Austrian movie) follows a few characters in a seemingly affluent suburb, suffering through a heatwave. The movie opens with a young man humiliating his girlfriend and abandoning her at the side of the highway. Then it shows a fat old man pottering around the garden in his underwear, followed (quite shockingly if you didn’t know it was coming) by some hardcore orgy footage. This turns out to be in some kind of private club beneath a shopping mall, from which one of the orgy participants (looking prim and middle-class) drives home to the house she shares with her ex-husband. He endlessly prowls the rooms bouncing a tennis ball while she lounges naked and hangs out with her paid bedmates.

Dog Days

A few more characters are introduced too, but we’ve already been exposed to the crux of Seidl’s methods. How does he get people to expose themselves like this? We perceive quickly enough that the woman at the orgy is unfulfilled, compensating for a huge void in her life (the death of a child). But we’ve also seen her in explicit, unquestionably unfaked sex acts, during which, by the way, we’ve been amply able to observer her (like almost everyone else’s in the film) tired, droopy body. Dog Days takes the voyeurism inherent in cinema and blows it up to the point that conventional pleasures quickly wither, leaving us scrambling for self-justification.

Seidl provides enough relatively easy (if never comfortable) laughs and points of identification that the film’s generally an enveloping experience, but to the extent to which it’s straightforwardly pleasurable just makes all the more uncomfortable the myriad occasions on which it isn’t that. Near the end, a dumpy old woman (let’s say maybe seventy years old) performs a striptease, which Seidl’s camera captures with his usual lack of reticence. After she’s finished, the old man watching her pronounces it very good – “Just like in the Orient.” This could be viewed as Seidl’s cruelest exploitation, and yet I think the scene should be read straight, allowing us to see the woman as a functioning sexual being.

When our concepts of sexuality are so consistently associated with beauty and conventional allure, Seidl arguably does something truly valuable here. His characters may look pathetic in a certain way, and we may wonder about the sanity of the actors, but the point is that we end up pondering a unique sexual terrain, and one that’s expansive rather than limiting.

Storytelling

Ironically, nobody is talking about the wild sex in Dog Days, whereas article after article discusses the red rectangle that, for American release purposes, blocks out the offensive bits in a certain scene from Storytelling. In Canada, we get a clean print, but everyone writes about the red rectangle anyway.

Where Seidl’s film is rough-edged and grainy, Solondz’ Storytelling is glossy and carefully composed. The film consists of two separate, although thematically connected stories. The first, titled Fiction, involves a college student who sleeps both with a disabled fellow student and then with her college professor; both these encounters generate short stories that are discussed in class. In the second, called Non-Fiction, a documentary filmmaker makes a movie about a dysfunctional suburban family, centering on the disconnected oldest son.

Storytelling has evoked quite a debate over whether Solondz is a petty, mean-spirited creep who creates characters only to abuse them, or whether he’s something more valuable than that. I think it’s the latter, but not by wide enough a margin to get excited about. He has a facility for clever plotting, for concepts and characters that tap a timeless (but essentially adolescent) cynicism about bourgeois values. Storytelling’s short ninety minutes pull in homosexuality, interracial sex, sex with the disabled, racism, Jewish self-consciousness, and much else. The effects are sometimes shocking, sometimes trite, but rarely profound or even stimulating.

This may not be clear while you’re actually watching it, for the movie does have a certain crisp earnestness. Fiction in particular has a symmetry and ambiguity that, in tandem with the segment’s daring elements, almost seem as if they must be significant. But in the end it can offer up only humiliation and evasion. Non-Fiction is more explicit about a theme that lurks below the surface of Fiction – that the creative process will almost inevitably belittle those who get caught up in its glare. But since this insight is built on a character who’s a nebbish, no-talent filmmaker with no artistic vision or talent, it’s not clear how wide an application this thesis might have. Maybe it’s not meant to have any. The film contains a leaden moment of self-reflection where the filmmaker’s editor tells him the rough-cut of his movie condescends to the characters. I guess Solondz thinks he’s being smart in anticipating his critics, but that just shows how narrow his preoccupations are.

In the Bedroom

Almost everything in Storytelling is clever, but almost nothing in it is intelligent. I have no problem accepting that Middle America is a solid bucket of banality. But Solondz just swats snidely at one thing after another, seemingly blind to the weariness that this provokes.


When I watch movies, I sometimes try to imagine the director behind the camera, watching and nodding and coaxing and shaping. If you did this while watching Storytelling, you’d imagine a precocious but whiny guy with several chips on his shoulder who seldom leaves his bedroom. Which means that rather than make the movie, maybe he should have just gone outside and got some fresh air. On the other hand, for all his film’s rampant sleaziness, Seidl comes across as a weirdly genial eccentric who’d talk your head off in the bar for hours. You wouldn’t agree with everything, and once in a while he’d probably make you wince, but it would be – not just euphemistically – an experience.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Ambiguity



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2002)

Don’t get me wrong – I love ambiguity. It’s a rare movie that’s not better off for a dose of it. But at a certain point, ambiguity turns into evasiveness, and I’m not sure that’s as productive an attribute. The greatest directors are frequently restrained to the point of mystery – they understand that the complexity of the human condition makes a mockery of over-assertiveness. Their greatness is more about how they explore than about what they find. Except, maybe, for true pessimists. It’s surely easier to be definitive about the darkness than the light. Which is maybe why Alfred Hitchcock’s films have more great endings than just about anyone else’s.

Mystery, no doubt

I liked a line that David Thomson wrote about Robert Bresson in his Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema – “Mystery there is in his work, but no doubt.” Meaning that although Bresson is “a great director…no other great director seems less intrigued by cinema itself…Bresson’s is a cinema of demonstration, so broad in its consequences that its wordly narrowness is made irrelevant.” Thomson retained that last description in the latest edition of his book, but removed the sentence about mystery and doubt – perhaps now considering it too trite a summarization of such a master. Or maybe he realized that, in a different way, it might as easily be applied to Antonioni, Godard or numerous others.

Several recent movies have been superb at sowing ambiguity, but they fail to find their shape, meaning that in the worst case their qualities come to resemble gimmicks. Some would place Mulholland Drive in this category, although as I wrote a few months ago, that film ultimately seemed to me almost more coherent than anything else released last year.

After a long delay, Francois Ozon’s Under the Sand recently opened here. The film stars Charlotte Rampling as a woman whose husband disappears while on vacation. It seems he may have drowned, but there’s no body, and she doesn’t accept his death. She continues to talk about him in the present tense, and imagines his presence when she’s alone at home. Gradually the evidence mounts that he is indeed dead, and sometimes she seems on the verge of acceptance, but then her faith, or her self-delusion, takes over again.

Under the Sand

The film is supremely poised, and takes much of its tone from Rampling’s classic, sculptured beauty. She gives a performance of great nuance, accommodating numerous interpretations with equal-minded finesse. At times, the psychological choreography of the film is quite dazzling. Towards the end there’s a moment when you think she’s finally given up, then she bursts into laughter. Moments later she’s crying on the beach, then she reverses again. When you dissect it, it has an experimental if not arbitrary aspect to it, but Rampling provides immense coherence.

But in itself, however well mounted, this doesn’t inherently amount to more than an elaborate guessing game. Beyond that, what does it all mean? The most obvious interpretation would turn on feminism. Rampling’s insistence on interpreting her own reality represents the ultimate transgression. It’s clear from the film that it’s not a matter of pining for a lost utopia – the marriage seems stable and comfortable, but also largely silent and cast in routine. Her state may not have been particularly liberated, but in insisting on maintaining it even when it’s been snatched from her, she almost makes it so. At the same time though, there’s enough genuine weakness and emotion in the film that it never seems like a theoretical exercise.

But this kind of project no longer seems particularly radical. The very same day I watched Under the Sand, I watched Carl Dreyer’s 1943 Day of Wrath – about a young woman who transgresses her strict seventeenth century society and ends up denounced as a witch. Although the film has a whole set of thematic and social concerns that Under the Sand doesn’t share, it could nevertheless be read in much the way I just described – as depicting the pitfalls of female self-determination. And that’s just the other film I saw that day – hundreds more could be read in a similar way.

Beyond this, you would have to resign yourself to the absence of explicit meaning, and take Under the Sand as purely an aesthetic construct. It has enough beauty and flair to make that viable. It’s certainly possible to regard the details of the narrative as incidental, to step back from what individual scenes might or not mean, to look at the film as a kind of meditation on doubt and memory and desire. It’s difficult though, because the film looks and smells and sounds like it’s telling a story. You can’t easily luxuriate in it in the abstract way that you might a piece of music or a sculpture – the pull of the next scene is too strong.

We were Soldiers

The very fact that the film can prompt such musings is, of course, part of its achievement. Compare it to We were Soldiers, the big movie that opened here on the same weekend as Under the Sand. We were Soldiers, a Vietnam war epic, is also well executed – the equal of Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down in the authenticity of its battle scenes. Given how bars get raised, I suspect that’s already a moot point, and that there may never again be a war movie that doesn’t equal those two films in authenticity. The grisliness of We were Soldiers (I’m thinking in particular of a depiction of a burning face) is especially chilling though in comparison to the film’s earlier piety (an unusual number of prayer scenes).



Also like those other two films, We were Soldiers treads a safe line in its attitude to war. This goes as follows: (a) war is hell on earth; (b) despite that, American soldiers are entirely admirable, and the soldiers on the other side are more to be pitied than despised; and (c) the politics of the situation are complex and not worth addressing in detail. We were Soldiers, written and directed by Randall Wallace (the writer of Braveheart) applies this formula cleanly and prototypically, and as I watched it I kept thinking there was something I was missing – some homely subtext that an urban liberal couldn’t hope to understand.

It’s been said that film aspires to the condition of music, but We were Soldiers seems to aspire more to the security and comfort of an incredibly vivid slideshow at a small town church hall. Under the Sand doesn’t quite satisfy on the highest level, but it’s conceived out of a love of cinema, and its mysteries are a fair homage to those of the medium itself.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Foreign films



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2002)

The accepted wisdom on foreign (non-English language) films is that they hit their peak of popular acceptance in the 60s and 70s, when you just weren’t plugged in unless you were up on Fellini and Bergman and Antonioni. Those giants waned in the 70s, and the next generation never attained the same visibility. Foreign films remained a strictly marginal commodity through the 80s and most of the 90s. But in the past few years the mainstream has become more accommodating of subtitles. Life is Beautiful was a big moneymaker, and won an Oscar for best actor. Then Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon passed the psychologically important $100 million mark at the US box office, and also did well at the Oscars. This year Amelie, although not quite at the same level, has been a very steady crowd-pleaser.

This is heartening, but the resurgence shouldn’t be overstated. I still often talk to regular moviegoers who view subtitles as a general no-go area, and who ask me if it isn’t hard (meaning I guess hard on the brain) to watch so many films on that basis. The movies I mentioned are the merest tip of the iceberg – not compensating for the dozens that limp along in barely visible commercial releases, even less for the hundreds that never get released at all. And of course, when a foreign film makes it big, it tends to be because it doesn’t actually seem that foreign. Maybe it’s not coincidental that directors who’s worked in America made the three films I mentioned.

Brotherhood of the Wolf

Recently I’ve been to numerous foreign films that attracted the usual meagre audiences, and a couple in which the cinema was almost if not actually full. Brotherhood of the Wolf has been playing downtown at the Paramount – perhaps the ultimate stamp of commercial approval. When I went on a Saturday afternoon, the audience looked like it had come to see Lord of the Rings.

My sense is they had a good time. The movie is set in the 1800s, in a French town terrorized by an unseen predator. An intrepid young scientist rides into town, accompanied by his Native American sidekick. For the first ninety minutes, the film is fast-moving but relatively sane. The last hour spirals off into what seems almost like free association, yielding astounding conspiracies, characters who aren’t what they seem to be, dead people who turn out to be alive, and major mayhem. Writing this review two weeks after seeing it, I have to concentrate really hard to recall the film’s nominal plot, but I certainly remember the pace.

This is conveyed through dashing camerawork; action sequences that have a Matrix-life hi-tech, metallic choreography (incorporating martial arts, kickboxing, etc.); intensive mythmaking; an overall sensibility that’s absorbed in the intrigue of a specific time and place while also being crisply modern. The film is a similar project to last year’s Crimson Rivers – like that contemporary thriller, it progresses from coherence to complete nuttiness. Actually, although Hollywood movies are so often criticized for their dumb plotting, Crimson Rivers and Brotherhood of the Wolf both have an abandon that’s distinctly different from American movies. Maybe American movies are generally too cautious to create the kind of whirling, involved narratives that typify computer games, comic books and teenage cults. Director Christophe Gans may truly have beaten them at their own game here.

Italian for Beginners

Italian for Beginners is a very different case study. This is the latest film to be shot in the “Dogme” style that represents a return to a simpler, less contrived cinema – Dogme films have natural lighting, hand-held cameras, a generally minimal, intimate style. Most Dogme films applied this technique to material that benefits from the added “realism.” Italian for Beginners applies the style to a contrived piece of romantic wish-fulfillment. For me, this inherently didn’t make much sense. But I’m in the minority again, because for its target audience (people who saw Amelie) it looks like another big crowd-pleaser.

The film revolves around six individuals – three male, three female – so the object is to see whether they’ll resolve themselves into three couples (take a wild guess…) They all attend an Italian class once a week, which for most of them represents a rare escape from their humdrum lives. For a comedy, I was impressed by the film’s dedication to presenting the full extent of that humdrumness. There’s a lot of death in the film – three secondary characters pass away, and another is in mourning as it starts – and no one in it is at all affluent, or even comfortable. And some of the quirky character traits – like one woman’s constant clumsiness – are presented with an unusual edge of desperation. Even rarer for a comedy – one of the six is a pastor, and spiritual faith is one of the film’s secondary themes.

This is all pretty interesting, but is far outweighed by the movie’s fluff content. For example, a dumpy, unremarkable middle-aged man develops a crush on a scintillating young Italian waitress. Happily for him, but inexplicably to the rest of us, she almost simultaneously develops a crush on him. Despite the consequent total lack of suspense, the movie dawdles for an hour and a half about getting them even to take a walk together. This is hardly realistic and falls short of satisfying escapism – one can only sit back and allow time to pass.

Fluff and kickboxing

The film’s notional centre, the Italian class, counts for less than you’d expect, although it does facilitate a scenic detour to Venice toward the end of the film. But it’s funny how the Danes latch onto the Italian lessons as a window into a better life. Especially in the age of the Euro, maybe we tend to see Europe as an increasingly undifferentiated mass. And there’s one of the flaws, of course, in my broad statements about “foreign” films – it’s a category so broad as to render all generalizations meaningless. Still, it’s not as if I’m the only one who ever used it. Virtually every video store, even the most refined ones, diligently separates out the “foreign” section.


Which is crazy, because a rack that includes Bergman, Kurosawa, Godard and Eisenstein (to name just four of the staples) contains such diverse promise and challenge that no label could ever summarize them. Except that they demand an open mind and intellect – an investment they repay ten times over. If the demands made by foreign films, and their rewards, are no more or less than those of the average American film, why separate them out at all? Yet we always will, because for more people than it should, the stigma of the subtitle will always render the most innocuous of films just a little too demanding. Fluff and kickboxing notwithstanding.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Thrill of the chase



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

I write movie columns my own way, no questions asked. Got it down real tight. I emerge from the mist, plan the job, see the movie, write the piece, deliver it, return into the mist. There’s a few out there like me, roaming the land. Those who need us know where to find us.

Den of critics

I get tipped off about a job in the East End. A guy – calls himself “Smith” – needs 20,000 words on John Waters’ Pecker. It’s a three-man job – a hundred bucks a head. We meet in an abandoned warehouse in Scarborough. Smith lays out the plan. The burly guy with a French accent does the plot summary. The tattooed kid from the Prairies handles the snippy comments about the actors (I take one look at this kid and know he’ll let us down – he talks the talk but hasn’t served his time. I throw out a line about Pink Flamingos and the schmuck comes back with some crap about seagulls). I’m the “artistic overview” man. I sit back, let Smith say his piece, draw his diagrams (it’s his money). “It won’t work,” I tell him then. “We need a fourth man. An editor.”

“There’s no editor. You three are the team.”

“What are the 20,000 words for?”

“You don’t need to know.”

“Are they for kids, for novices, for enthusiasts?”

“You’ll get that information later.”

“If we’re not doing the job right, my price goes up. A hundred now, a hundred on delivery.” He stares, sees where I’m coming from, retreats into the shadows and places a call, presumably to the real money men. The French guy offers me a cigarette, which I accept. I feel pretty good about him. He looks and listens, but keeps his mouth shut; he knows the rules, he’s one of us. Meanwhile the kid starts bragging about his cousin who works for Eye magazine. I just soak it up. I’ll take care of him later.

Smith returns, agrees to my terms. The screening’s in two days, maybe three. Then we have a day to carry out the job. It’s going to take killer planning. I check out the equipment. The computer’s OK, although the “F” key sticks. Smith commits to a new keyboard. The beverages suck. No one writes on Mountain Dew. The chair hurts my ass. He promises it’ll be replaced.

The documentarians!

The next night. We’ve set up a deal with a research gang from North York to buy a stash of John Waters clippings. We pull up in the designated alley, wait for the flash of their headlights. We emerge from our car, two guys emerge from theirs, we meet in the middle. “We’ve got the money,” says Frenchie, and when they ask to see it, he holds up the crisp twenty dollar bill (and that’s U.S.) in the moonlight. “Where’s the stuff?”

They tell us it’s in the trunk. Frenchie and the kid follow them to the car. Suspicious, I hang back. I scan the night like the cat. I notice they’re parked right under a streetlight. I see a rustling in the shadows; a glimmer off a lens. I instantly figure it out. “They’re not researchers,” I yell. “They’re documentarians. They’re putting us in their goddamn video.” My partners turn to steel, tackling the others as I go for the secret shooter. I overpower him easily, smash his camera. They’re no match for us. We get away with the Waters clippings and some Star Trek videotapes we find in the back seat, and we keep the twenty.

Well, more on that some other time. Now, for a complete change of pace, to John Frankenheimer’s new thriller Ronin.

French twists

Ronin is a grand, somewhat old-fashioned concoction, in which an international band of mercenaries come together in Paris to pull off the theft of an extremely important and closely-guarded suitcase. The movie has a great pace, beautiful French settings, some of the best car chases in memory, lots of neat little plot touches and Robert De Niro – not in one of his lazy cameos as the villain, but as the smartest and most resourceful of the group.

And the movie’s kind of cool. De Niro and Jean Reno (as the second smartest and most resourceful of the group) always do it just right. They’re not demonstrative or ironic quipsters in the contemporary style – maybe just a throwaway remark to break things up – but they get things done. There’s an impressive imagination in the details here. During a struggle, De Niro gains the upper hand by strategically spilling a cup of hot coffee he’d left in a particular spot a few moments earlier, apparently having foreseen exactly when and how he’d need it. Casing out their adversaries in a hotel lobby, he effortlessly orchestrates a false alarm to see how they react in an attack situation, while setting up a tourist to take pictures of the whole thing. He has a slight weakness for a beautiful woman, but…well, that’s allowed as long as you don’t go overboard. And he doesn’t.


On balance, Ronin should displace Out of Sight as the consensus choice for the year’s best thriller so far. The latter was a little too self-conscious in its effects for my taste: I liked the individual pieces well enough, but it didn’t take off for me. The actors seemed somewhat distanced from the material, all doing their own charismatic pirouettes, all determined to get good reviews, whereas Ronin looks as if everyone turned up on the set, nodded taciturnly to each other (perhaps through a cloud of cigarette smoke) and went to work. The style is beautifully fluid, dazzling in its clarity and simplicity, right on the nail. The only way to do the job.

I mean, after the young punk proved me right and double-crossed us, you don’t think we struck a pose and cried into our soup do you? A man I know from the old days at the agency got us a fix on the kid’s cell phone. We tracked him down to a room in Guelph (those John Waters cultists try to avoid the bid cities). Frenchie and I pulled up outside, and waited. And then, when he finally came out to buy Entertainment Weekly, we pounced!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Comedy overboard



(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 1998)

Two new comedies with exactly opposite problems: one too unambitious and set in its ways, the other with a reach that far exceeds its grasp. From that summary, the former sounds like the best bet for the conservative viewer, until I tell you it’s directed by the legendarily wicked John Waters. But, as we know, the once shocking has a tendency to become endearing over time. Not that Waters’ work wasn’t truly jaw-dropping at its peak. But if it makes you quiver nowadays, it probably isn’t with outrage, but rather with disbelief that (a) Waters ever thought up that stuff, and (b) that he then found anyone willing to enact it. The chicken molestation scene in Pink Flamingos is pretty high on my list of things I wouldn’t do for any amount of money (and would be even higher if not for the dog poop-eating scene).

Ode to Baltimore

But Pink Flamingos, despite its central theme of Divine enacting the “filthiest person alive” – a status I’m sure most viewers happily conceded – had a weird affinity for family and domesticity, even if enacted by grotesques and perverts. Over the years, Waters has become softer in his approach to these subjects, while growing almost as famous for his love of Baltimore as for the, uh, other stuff. His new movie Pecker synthesizes these strands in a way that’s perhaps revealing about the earlier work. Young Pecker (ostensibly so named for his habit of pecking at his food – well, isn’t that convenient), a sweet-natured youth who constantly captures the world around him on his cheap camera, becomes an instant sensation when a New York gallery owner happens upon an exhibition (on the walls of a burger dive) of his artless but helplessly evocative photographs. He’s whizzed off to New York, where the intelligentsia fawns over him and he’s showered in adulation, money and commissions.

But the often-chronicled dark side of fame quickly sets in, with adverse consequences for Pecker’s entire family and social circle. Must Pecker sacrifice the pursuit he loves to regain harmony? Well, you’ll have a pleasant enough hour and a half finding out. Indeed, the most striking aspect of the movie is its sheer amiability. Pecker’s life in Baltimore is a down-at-heel paradise, bursting with goodwill toward the homeless, the crackpots, the kleptomaniacs and – with particular relish perhaps – the gays (Martha Plimpton’s role as Pecker’s sister, devoted to her role of professional fag hag, is perhaps the best of many goofily precise performances in the film). The shock value in Pecker consistently seems based in a delight at the foibles and eccentricities that keep people going under economically and environmentally challenged conditions. Some characters – like the dotty grandmother who puts a parrot-like stream of “Full of grace”s into the mouth of her plastic Virgin Mary, then claims she’s witnessing a miracle – are treated with as much kindness as they could hope for anywhere in Filmland (in There’s Something About Mary for instance, granny would have been stripped topless and the Virgin sold into bondage).

Limp and Limper

That might have been fine if Pecker never moved out of Baltimore, but I found the film’s overall direction really quite off-putting. The jabs at New York styles and pretensions have substantially less wit to them, and although Waters’ inherent good nature staves off bitchiness, it’s hard not to read the film as being simply anti-intellectual. The quirky tolerance of Pecker’s environment is appealing from the outset – it’s not like It’s a Wonderful Life, where the protagonist needs a series of revelations to show him the true value of home. In that light, the picture’s entire trajectory is redundant. As it went on, I wasn’t sure whether I was witnessing a display of insecurity, or one of self-congratulation. In any event, Pecker ends up seeming progressively limp.

That’s nothing though compared with the startling tailspin of Stanley Tucci’s current The Impostors. It’s a consciously old-fashioned farce, with lots of running around and mistaken identity and comic violence and lust and that kind of thing, built around two unemployed actors (played by Tucci and Oliver Platt) who inadvertently become stowaways on a cruise ship. The first twenty minutes or so, consisting of a series of sketches around Platt and Tucci’s mishaps on dry land, are fairly wonderful – visually stylish, imaginative, painstakingly written and acted, with a fresh eye for classic slapstick and bumbling (and the cameo by Woody Allen doesn’t hurt either).

Sinking feelings

But once the action switches to the ship, with twelve or so key characters to juggle, the rot quickly sets in. There’s not much wrong with the concept that I can see, but the movie foolishly overburdens itself with plots (a kidnapping, a conspiracy to blow up the ship, a suicidal entertainer, a deposed queen, to name about a third of them). The slamming of doors (and the accompanying musical motif) becomes increasingly tedious; the actors get squeezed; the jokes get mechanical; things become purely (and barely) functional. The cast, pretty strong on paper, is squandered: the likes of Steve Buscemi and Lili Taylor have never seemed so dull, and how could Tucci make Next Stop Wonderland’s intriguing actress Hope Davis so washed-out and, well, ugly? The film’s closing Blazing Saddles-like conceit, in which the cast dances off the ship, through the set, and out into the studio parking lot, is a blatant (and failed) attempt to strike a camaraderie with the audience that the movie’s second half distinctly fails to earn on its merits.



Given the success of the earlier tighly-focused sequences (and of Tucci’s first film, Big Night, co-directed with Campbell Scott), this looks primarily like a case of over-reaching – a flaw easily correctable for the next film. As for The Impostors, the highlights I’ve mentioned – as well as a few other bits here and there (I particularly liked Billy Connolly as an untypical homosexual predator) – make it no more than a passable time-killer.

So although in principle it seems more commendable to aim too high than too low, Pecker scores a clear win as the better film of  these two, if only by default. Unless Waters hits on something new, or steps into something really disgusting, Tucci should get the better of him next time round.