Sunday, December 09, 2007

Ethan Hawke’s Confessional: The Hottest State
“Love consists of this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.
The future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens.”

Written and directed by Ethan Hawke, and based on Hawke’s (I presume) autobiographical novel of the same name, The Hottest State is an intensely personal movie. Yet unlike, say, Woody Allen’s autobiographical films (Annie Hall, Stardust Memories, Husbands and Wives), Hawke’s personality doesn’t flood his material. Hawke is quite casual about baring his soul to us, and audiences may not be aware how deeply he takes them into his psyche. But he holds nothing back. The film recounts a brief, magical love affair between 20-year-old William (Mark Webber), a Texan living in New York, and Sara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), a beautiful Mexican who has moved to the city to pursue her singing career. Working closely with his actors and crew, Hawke uses simple, unassuming brush strokes to communicate the joy and misery—and the complexities—of romantic love. The film unfolds with an easy spontaneity that is both engaging and faintly ominous (we know where it’s heading because William informs us in voice-over). William’s trouble is that he has fallen in love—as my own attempt at autobiographical romance had it—with “a force of evil,” with unfathomable femininity.
In fact, The Hottest State is everything I wanted Beauty Fool to be but wasn’t. It shows the futility of romantic desire without ever opting for self-pity or easy cynicism. Hawke imbues the film with the wisdom and acceptance of a broken heart made stronger and freer by the breakage.
The film has weaknesses. The way Sara makes explicit the lessons she hopes William will learn—as a result of her breaking up with him—makes her seems shallow, callous, but also slightly unbelievable as a character. Sara is beautiful and elusive; she is destructive and cruel to William without even trying, simply by being herself. Unattainable, unpredictable, utterly unknowable, she is everything a woman is obliged by her nature to be. But we are never given any real clue as to why she turns cold on William, and when she tells him that their time together was the best of her life, it’s hard to believe it, because the remark flies so utterly in the face of her decision to cruelly dump him. Yet clearly Hawke means for us to believe her, and we have seen how blissfully happy William and Sara were together in Mexico. But why it all went wrong is never made clear, and because of this, Sara seems less than fully realized as a character. We get a one-sided view of her, created perhaps by someone who never really understood why she had to leave. To his credit, Hawke couldn’t or didn’t want to invent a reason, so he leaves it open, vague, and to this extent the film may almost be too honest, too painful, for viewers.
For my part, the film opened wounds I didn’t especially want opened. Maybe that was because Hawke’s experience of heartbreak is unusually similar to my own, but I think it’s more because the film is so faithful to his own experience that it gets at something universal, it cuts all the way to the bone. As a result, it may stir feelings we’d rather not have to deal with, ones we’d hoped we’d put to rest. I can’t think of another romantic film that manages to be this painful, this heartfelt, without being sentimental. Partly this is because Hawke focuses less on the sadness of watching a great love die than on the horror and incomprehensibility of it.
The film is a little soft around the edges. Some of the dialogue (particularly between William and his mother, played by Laura Linney, and in the crucial scene with William’s father, played by Hawke) may be a little too pat. We’re aware of Hawke’s limitations as a writer here, of his putting words into the characters’ mouths instead of letting them speak for themselves (which is the problem with Sara’s last few scenes). But considering what Hawke is attempting here—adapting his own novel, directing it, and playing a key role—it’s an astonishingly assured work. Although it’s raw and almost nakedly personal, there’s nothing amateurish about it. Hawke’s handling of his actors is superb, and just about every scene resonates, rings bells of recognition. In scene after scene, Hawke seems to get precisely what he is after. His use of the soundtrack (with songs written by Jesse Harris), the free-form editing, overlapping scenes, voice-over, the rich, sensuous colors and his knack for placing the camera just where it needs to be, is all remarkably assured, making this probably the most auspicious debut from a writer-director since Sean Penn’s Indian Runner. The Hottest State is a wonderful film and I felt richer for having seen it; it deserves a wider audience, because so far as I know it did little business and got luke-warm notices—it looks unlikely to find a distributor, in fact, meaning besides film festivals, the only place you’ll see it is at your local DVD store. Another precious gem slips under the radar. With all the dreck we get inflicted upon us as “entertainment,” it’s doubly tragic—and infuriating—when we are denied the real quality stuff out there. It’s enough for a filmmaker to want to find another line of business.
Like Penn, Hawke possesses an authentic artistic sensibility, and with any luck he could become a major filmmaker. He’s so confident of getting to the truth of a scene that he evokes emotions without even trying. The film has a raw honesty to it, and yet it never seems self-indulgent or narcissistic. It’s confessional in the best sense, as if getting these experiences down (in the novel, which I haven’t read, and by making the film) was essential to Hawke, for his own peace of mind. It comes from the place that all works of art come from: by sharing his pain and confusion with us, Hawke appears to be coming to terms with his past, reducing its hold over him. The film has urgency and poignancy, it feels essential, torn from the heart. I can’t think of another film that conveys the agony of heartbreak and the rite of passage it entails as completely and as powerfully as this. It has its very own ache. Hawke’s not just a gifted filmmaker, he’s a natural-born poet.

Jake Horsley, © 2007

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Why Film Criticism is So Bad

I’m generally the last person to talk about how they don’t make movies like they used to. Yet this is the second time this year that I’m about to do so (the last time was after seeing Face in the Crowd and Splendor in the Grass). By and large it’s like anything else: whether or not progress is really just a fancy word for decay, the fact remains that the past is past, and whatever movies are being made today—and whatever else you can say about them—they are of their time and so speak more directly of it (more fully represent it) than do old movies, no matter how great. This is true only up to a point, however. Who can argue that King Lear is more relevant today than, say, Dan in Real Life (a sweet enough film which I will review here soon)? Or that Metropolis speaks more acutely of our times than Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium—or The Brothers Karamazov than Southland Tales? Art will out, and however timely trash may be, it is still, at the end of the day, trash—to be forgotten almost as quickly as it is devoured.

I just saw All About Eve, which is currently enjoying a revival in London. I was swept away by the film. It gripped me in a way that no recent works, not even the best (Into the Wild, Atonement), have managed to, drawing me into its world and holding me in a way that generally only great novels do. Pauline Kael called it “one of the most enjoyable movies ever made”; it is certainly that, but it’s also more. With its scathing yet balanced depiction of (what was then) “the modern world” of show business, and its chilling portrait (in Eve, who is really Lilith) of the pathological drive to success running through it like a slow poison, it hasn’t dated one bit. If anything, it may be more insightful and “relevant” today than ever.

The film holds up far better than Citizen Kane, which is to say, better than just about any other American movie from the period (1950). It’s an incredibly sophisticated work, and although stylistically it’s perhaps not in Kane’s class, in terms of story, character, and dialogue, it’s light years ahead of Welles’ film. But let’s face it, though Citizen Kane is a brilliant film, it’s not a work of much depth. Do we ever really care about Kane as a person? Has anyone but movie buffs ever cried at the movie? I doubt it. All About Eve does more than move us—it moves us and then it reveals that we have been deceived (as much as the characters have) to have been moved; and then it moves us again, only this time genuinely. It is I think a work of genius (the genius being Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose brother Herman co-wrote Kane.)

The reason Citizen Kane is so highly regarded, perhaps, is that it is both a cerebral and ostentatious work, filled with playfulness and ingenuity but not much heart or soul. Critics, being generally deficient in the areas of heart and soul, tend to approve of such works. Welles’ stylistic flourishes and his somewhat detached insights into human nature appeal to the predominantly intellectual bent of critics, and since it is critics who “decide” which works get to be called great, naturally the movies that appeal to the critical sensibility (i.e., the overly intellectual mind-set) are the ones that rank highest. All About Eve is also considered a great work, but nowhere near the stature of Kane. Yet it is by far the more heartfelt and affecting work.


Pauline Kael once wrote an essay entitled: “Is there a cure for film criticism?” The answer I’m afraid is no, there is not. Power corrupts, and the paltry power which critics have to impose their tastes (i.e., egos) on their readers seems to be what drives many journalists to the field of movie criticism. What clearly does not drive most of these critics is a simple love of movies, a love which Pauline Kael possessed in abundance, and which characterizes even the most scathing of her pieces.

Since I have been writing for The List I have been attending press screenings, and as a result have begun to believe that film critics aren’t really as interested in movies as they are in expressing their opinions about them. At the last film I saw (Dan in Real Life), sitting on either side of me were two (male) critics, both with pen and notepad in their hands, scribbling away throughout the movie. It’s true that, during Southland Tales, I was so bored by the movie that I wrote my review in the theater while the film was still playing. But this was expressly because the film was so bad that I needed something, anything, to relieve the boredom. It’s also true that, occasionally, very occasionally, I might jot down a quote or a thought during a movie, in order not to forget it. But these two critics were constantly jotting things down, and they spent half the time with their noses in their notepads instead of looking at the screen. After a while, I began to wonder if they were seeing the movie at all—they seemed to be too busy analyzing it. Instead of thinking about what was happening on the screen, they were already thinking about what they were going to say about it—in other words, about themselves.

It strikes me as rather pitiful that someone could be so immersed in their “station” as a film critic—and take it so seriously—that they would forsake the basic pleasures of watching a movie. Is it any wonder there is so much shoddy, petty, and mean-spirited film criticism, or why critics are by and large such obtuse and unimaginative creatures?

On the other hand, perhaps related to this, there is another fact to consider. Critics seem to be all too easily corrupted by the perks of power which their office provides. Such power is twofold: the public need critics to help them decide whether a movie is worth seeing or not, and moviemakers and distributors (to some extent at least) also rely on critics to create a positive “buzz.” So a critic may perceive an almost slavish dependency on his or her services on both sides. It’s a paltry sort of power, all told (with rare exceptions, no movie was ever saved or sunk by critics); but then again, if it interferes with the purity of the critical process (by creating self-interest), any power is too much.

There is such a thing as critical consensus, and the public have been known to go along with it: some truly mediocre films have somehow attained the consensus of greatness, either as a result of critical or public opinion or both (e.g., Silence of the Lambs, The Exorcist, Dances with Wolves, The Shawshank Redemption, Little Miss Sunshine, the list goes on and on). In theory, one critic can turn the tide if enough other critics (for whatever reason) fall in line, whereupon the public obediently follows suit. There are even occasional upsides to this normally depressing process, such as when Kael single-handedly created a reevaluation and re-release of Bonnie and Clyde. But mostly, it is simply a case of the rot settling in.

The desire for social influence comes from basic lack of self-esteem or personal power—in a word, an insecure ego. Naturally, such insecurity is assuaged by the feeling of self-importance that having some influence over other people’s opinions brings. This is most commonly seen in religious fanatics who attempt to convert anyone and everyone to their beliefs—ostensibly out of religious zeal (to save souls), but really only to prop up their own precarious belief system by getting others to invest in it. Even more fundamentally, it is a means of increasing their sense of self-worth by “helping” other people to “see the light.”

In our modern world, the average sophisticated person hasn’t much by way either of a religious or a moral system to adhere to, much less advocate. In its place (since nature abhors a vacuum) we have a modern value system that pertains more to matters of taste and style (though also political conviction), so that today, it is not so much what we believe as what we “like” that defines us. Most of us become uncomfortable if a close friend doesn’t agree with us about a movie we especially love (or hate); either secretly or openly, we want somehow to “set them straight” and convince them they are wrong. In more or less the same way, zealots attempt to convince sinners of the error of their ways, albeit with considerably more zeal and moral arrogance, the basic motive being the same. In our present culture of entertainment, journalists and critics are the equivalent of preachers—high priests in the case of the more influential ones—and just as in religion and politics, the field attracts a disproportionate number of scoundrels and rogues, insecure and unscrupulous individuals who will do just about anything to consolidate their petty sphere of influence.
Apropos of this, I recently saw that both Film Comment and Sight and Sound gave glowing notices to Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. In both cases, it was the same critic doing the praising (Amy Taubin, who compared Kelly’s film to Citizen Kane). I couldn’t help but wonder—in the light of such a brazen travesty of critical judgment—what was in it for these magazines. Kelly’s film is so indefensibly awful that it seemed destined for the kind of critical and popular reception that every filmmaker dreads. If such bizarre critical favoritism helps save Kelly from oblivion, fair enough: bad as Southland Tales is, Kelly doesn’t deserve to be barred from making future films. However, I can’t believe that either Film Comment or Sight & Sound commissioned Taubin to praise the film out of sympathy for Kelly (and even less out of admiration for the film). Yet there remains the distinctly odd coincidence of the only two “serious” and widely distributed film magazines praising what must be the worst auteur movie of the year, or of the last few years for that matter. The only explanation left—besides simple chance—is that the company behind the film (Sony) has been offering out bribes as a means of damage control, to prevent the movie from being a total disaster.

It’s a simple enough procedure for a magazine, having been “encouraged” by a major corporation to praise a film, to seek out one of its writers who actually liked the film and then give the commission to them. Editors (in this case Gavin Smith and Nick James) can tell themselves there’s nothing “unethical” about such a procedure, since after all, a review is always only one person’s opinion anyway. But the fact remains that corporate agenda is dictating the magazine’s policy.

Whether specifically true in this case or not, there’s no doubt that this is becoming more and more the case. There is more and more evidence that, even when individual sensibilities are expressed through the media, they tend to be almost deliberately perverse and completely out of whack with anything resembling good sense or critical judgment. Such aberrational “exceptions” are probably serving the machine in ways that may not at first be obvious. Southland Tales is supposedly a subversive film, even an apocalyptic one; but it is so utterly dismal a work that I can only imagine the forces which it appears to be denouncing and exposing will be perfectly happy for it to reach audiences, since it can only serve to deaden their brains even more than they are already. (It strikes me as a very cynical film, because there is nothing behind the “subversive” ideas save a rather self-indulgent desire to wallow in them.)

All about Eve, on the other hand, is a truly subversive and inspired work. It does exactly what the consensus of politicians, journalists, film critics, and all the rest of the intellectualized bellwethers to the secret elite—as well as the lobotomized masses they take delight in controlling—seem intent on avoiding at all costs: it stirs the depths of the soul. Watching it is not just entertaining, it’s enlightening. It brings us to a higher, more finely attuned state of consciousness, one of compassion, understanding, and empathy. This is what characterizes all true works of art, and what the rest of the world appears to be increasingly intent upon suppressing at any cost: intensity of feeling.

Friday, November 30, 2007

You Kill Me, Southland Tales & Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium

You Kill Me
Every once in a while a movie comes along in which the filmmakers know exactly what they’re doing, which is precisely how I felt within the first few moments of You Kill Me, a razor-sharp comedy directed by John Dahl from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, starring Ben Kingsley as an alcoholic hitman, Frank. When Frank falls asleep on the job and the target gets away, Roman, his Mafioso brother (Philip Baker Hall), orders him to join the AA and clean up his act. The rest of the plot (involving Dennis Farina as a rival mob boss muscling in on Roman’s turf) is at best functional, but with a premise like this—hit-man forced to quit drinking so he can carry on killing—who cares? The casting of Kingsley as Frank is inspired, and Dahl returns to form as a director, his last film of note being Rounders, back in 1998. The film delivers on its giddy promise pretty much all the way, and unlike most other nihilistic-comedies-about-lovable-hitmen, there’s nothing mean-spirited about it. It doesn’t glorify Frank’s work, but it never holds it against him either. It’s dark, but it has heart.

Since playing Gandhi in 1982, Kingsley has steadily evolved from an accomplished, rather dull actor into a sneaky, playful presence; he seems especially at home playing heavies, and Frank may be his best role to date. Tea Leoni, Bill Pullman, Luke Wilson, and Marcus Thomas all bring a special flourish to their work, and make up a motley bunch of endearing, slightly off-the-wall characters (the exceptions are Farina and Hall, who have played these roles too many times before). The film rather fizzles out towards the end—it badly needs an ingenious twist or action sequence to round it off—but for most of its length it’s a real gem: diamond hard and razor-sharp. Frank takes pride in being good at his job, but he has a conscience. He doesn’t regret killing people, just the kills that weren’t “clean.” The film is gleefully morbid. It’s death-affirming.

Southland Tales
Richard Kelly’s long-awaited follow-up to 2001’s Donnie Darko arrives on a wave of bad press after its 2006 screening at Cannes, and alas, reports were not exaggerated. Southland Tales is painfully sophomoric and entirely devoid of the wit, intelligence and pathos that made Donnie Darko such a unique experience. Aspiring to be a sci-fi epic, the film was shot on a tiny budget in only thirty days, and the film looks (and sounds) like an “avant-garde” American TV show, with performances (a bland cast lead by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Sarah Michelle Geller) on about the same level. Everything about Southland Tales is horribly botched; it even manages to make Miranda Richardson look like a bad actress, a major feat in itself.

Whatever Kelly’s vision was, it was hopelessly scrambled on the way to the screen. What’s left is an undisciplined mishmash of ill-conceived, poorly executed scenes going nowhere and a lot of slapstick violence and smug, “surrealist” jokes reminiscent of David Lynch on a bad day. Kelly is insanely ambitious and he throws just about everything into the mix—Biblical prophecies, teenage porn, corporate conspiracies, rigged elections, time travel, world war three—everything except believable characters, engaging dialogue, or a plot that makes any sense. When Kelly’s not aping Lynch he’s coat-tailing Kubrick (he makes his inspirations plain with the soundtrack, probably the most enjoyable thing in the film), but he has sacrificed his own sensibility on the altar of his movie idols. In the process of realizing his grandiose satiric-apocalyptic vision of “Life on Earth,” he short-circuited his talent. Without narrative framework or coherent vision, Southland Tales is all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
Written and directed by Zach Helm (who wrote last year’s underrated Stranger Than Fiction), Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium tells the tale of a 243-year-old toy shop proprietor (Dustin Hoffman) and his faithful store manager Molly (Natalie Portman). When Magorium decides his time to depart has come, he chooses Molly as his heir, but Molly doubts her ability to fill her mentor’s magical shoes. Helm is aiming for a kind of archetypal fairy tale complete with Tim Burton-style carnival antics, but nothing seems to come naturally to him. He’s straining for effects and the strings are showing, and most of the time he relies on a soaring orchestral score do his work for him. The music lets us know when we’re supposed to be moved, and audiences may go along with the film simply because it works so hard at being liked. But besides the irresistible high of seeing Natalie Portman finding her witchcraft, nothing has much resonance here. It’s all bright surfaces with nothing behind them. Where Stranger Than Fiction achieved a magical realism, combining a sharp psychological edge with Capra-esque sweetness, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is all sweetness and no edge. It’s cotton candy, and without nuances or depth, the result is as flat and inconsequential as a cartoon show. We might at least have hoped for an inventive star turn from Hoffman, but he comes off as a mincing, cloying presence. The whole film is cloying, in fact. Magic that isn’t anchored in reality is just confetti to distract from the fact that nothing is really going on. The film is kid’s stuff, a likeable trifle. Considering the talent involved, it’s a major disappointment.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Reign Over Me: The Healing Power of Tears

I seem to be doing a lot of sobbing at the movies these days. Maybe it’s me—it’s been a rough year, and if sadness makes the heart grow tender, then a tender heart feels sadness all the more acutely (it’s a bittersweet circle). The business of living day to day tends to get in the way of processing the sorrow of being alive—who has time to get through it all?! Thank God for the movies. With all that sorrow banked up inside us, just waiting to break on through, all it takes is the right kind of shove for the flood gates to come crashing open. At least, that’s how it is for me.

I admit I am a sucker for sad movies (and sad songs, hell, sad anything); I even shed a tear at Titanic, much to my shame. But what the hell: if a little artfully (or trashily) rendered heartache allows us to tap into the all-too-real sadness locked up inside us, why not? It’s great therapy. (This is probably why I prefer to see movies alone, or at least with someone as “sensitive” as I am.) But there’s a difference between a mawkish tear sheepishly shed in response to the shameless manipulations of Hollywood, and the kind of out and out sobbing of which I am now talking.

First there was Atonement, a film that built to a crescendo of sadness and seemed to tap into a universal sorrow, a cosmic melancholy that had nothing to do, finally, with the specific story or the characters, and everything to do with a basic human regret for what might have been, and the longing for what can never be. Such regret and longing seems to be what being in love—which is the defining experience of being human—is all about, and Atonement captured something indefatigable and mysterious about the human condition. Is this why they say love hurts? Not because it goes awry (though it usually does), but because the act of loving opens us up in such a way—tenderizes us—so that everything hurts? To feel such tenderness for one’s beloved is to feel empathy for all creatures everywhere, and yes, it hurts terribly. But it’s a joyful sorrow, because we know that only through feeling such empathy are we really alive.

Into the Wild also had me blubbing almost uncontrollably by the end. I could hear people in the audience shifting in their seats and sense their resistance to the power of the movie, the awful pain of loss which it was trying to communicate, but that they’d rather rationalize away than have to experience, even in a movie. People are frightened of that kind of intensity, and they resent and reject movies that stir such deeper feelings in them. As a result, they miss out on the most valuable thing that art has to offer: true catharsis. Me, I love it. What could be better than working through one’s grief and sadness in the safety and comfort of a movie experience—weeping not for one’s own losses but for those of other people—people who (some of the time, at least, though not in the case of Into the Wild) don’t even exist? If we can come out of a movie feeling like a loved one just died or like our hearts have been torn to shreds by forces beyond our control or understanding, then we know we just saw something. We have had a taste of what living is all about: intensity of feeling. (Other films that left me feeling this way: Blue Velvet, Casualties of War, A Midnight Clear, United States of Leland.)

The latest movie to do me in is not quite in this class, but it’s well worth a look. It’s called Reign Over Me, with Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle, two wonderful actors who do some terrific work here. Sandler is especially good, as Charlie Fineman, a father and husband whose family is killed in a plane crash on 9/11, and who retreats into a foggy fantasy world, safe from the reach of other people and from his own unbearable grief, until Cheadle comes along and draws him back to reality. This is basically the same or similar story to The Fisher King, but Reign Over Me is not a fantastic or mythical tale, it’s a more straightforward drama, and I had my doubts about the film before seeing it. It’s written and directed by Mike Binder, who did The Upside of Anger, an enjoyable and intelligent film (Binder’s an actor also and he has a role in Reign as Charlie’s obnoxious lawyer). Using a personal 9/11 tragedy sounded like a dangerously sentimental and earnest departure point for a movie, and I was expecting the kind of “healing” feel-good fluff that Hollywood does so poorly. But Reign Over Me is a wonderful movie, unpretentious and not in the least bit pious. It’s light on its feet but it packs a real wallop. Admittedly, it sticks fairly close to a feel-good formula and it’s a very slick package, all told, so you’d be forgiven for dismissing it as just another Hollywood product. Binder’s film doesn’t take any major risks; it’s the kind of film you could take your grandparents to—a film for everyone—not something that can ever be said about a genuine work of art. But if it’s not a work of art, it’s a beautifully rendered tale with a smart, heartfelt script, and whatever shortcomings the film has, Adam Sandler transcends them all. With Sandler’s remarkable performance at its center, the film has a big and tender heart, and a true sense of pathos; it may be the fullest, most satisfying depiction of grief I’ve ever seen in a movie. Reign Over Me sneaks up on you; it starts off gentle and funny and unassuming, but if you succumb to its unusual blend of sharpness and tenderness, by the end it will have rent your heart in two. Reign Over Me argues for the healing power of tears. It sure persuaded me.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Into the Wild: Snapshots of the Heart

Based on Jon Krakauer’s book about the true story of Chris McCandless, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is a powerful movie. As a writer-director, Penn has a way of cutting to the bone of his subject—he has an eye and ear that is almost unique in American movies, and he manages to be soulful without a trace of sentimentality (he gets away with lines that would turn to mush in anyone else’s hands). There’s a core of pathos to his film which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before.

This may be personal prejudice: the story of a young post-graduate student who gives up his inheritance and abandons a cozy life to wander across the US without a word to his family, and who ends up dying alone in the wilderness of Alaska, has special resonance for me because I did something similar, at almost the same age as McCandless. I didn’t go to the wilds of Alaska and live in a bus—I went to Morocco and lived hand-to-mouth on the streets of Tangier—but the intent was the same: to get free from the suffocating context (and comforts) of a life that had defined me, and see what remained.

Chris McCandless is played by Emile Hirsch, last seen as the despicable Johnny Truelove in Alpha Dog, and it’s hard to imagine two more different roles. Hirsch has just the right qualities of strength and guilelessness here, the innocence and stubbornness that characterized McCandless. Chris is only interested in getting to the truth, whatever the cost in suffering (starting with his own: since his heart was broken, he has no qualms about breaking anyone else’s). By the end of his journey (we know this because he kept a journal), he realizes that whatever truth or happiness he finds in the wild is meaningless without someone to share it with. His desire to connect to Nature and so come to know his own truth is incomplete without a connection to others. This may be the final truth that McCandless realized; in a way, it’s the truth that killed him—or rather, that he had to die to discover.

It’s tempting to call Into the Wild a tragedy. It’s devastatingly painful to watch and the tendency is to seek a word to encompass that pain. But I don’t think it’s true; Chris made a choice to live on his terms; if someone had asked him if he was willing to die for them, I have no doubt he would have said yes. He died doing exactly what he wanted to do, and where’s the tragedy in that? If anything, Chris was an old-fashioned hero on a traditional quest for truth, but he was not a tragic hero. His “flaw” was in his naiveté, but this was inseparable from his integrity and vision: he knew he might die in Alaska but went anyway. He was prepared; it’s just that his preparations weren’t enough.

It's been years since I read the book, but so far as I know (and by most accounts), the film sticks close to Krakauer's account, which was itself close to being an accurate report of Chris' journey. Yet Into the Wild has the strength and simplicity—the moral force—of a fable, and with any luck that’s what audiences will respond to (those who don’t reject Chris outright as “selfish” or arrogant and dismiss his death as meaningless). What Chris chose—to leave it all behind and return to the wilderness to find out what he was made of—is surely something any sensitive person in today’s world can relate to. But it was more than a London-esque test of manhood or rite of passage (though it was certainly that), it was the searching of a poetic soul for meaning, of a highly sensitive and intelligent kid determined to strip away the layers that came between him and the truth, to remove all the masks and see what was behind them. In a way, Chris’ death was testimony not to his own folly, his obsession, but to the world’s failure to provide any meanings for Chris to believe in. The tragedy, then, is the tragedy of the world, a world represented by Chris’ parents, who pay the ultimate price for their failure, which is their incapacity to love their son in a way that is truthful.

If Chris unconsciously chose to die rather than to live in a world in which he found nothing—no values—worth living for, who can blame him? His death had more meaning than the life his parents wished for him ever could: it was at least his own meaning, his choice. As a writer and director, Sean Penn doesn’t belabor any of this. He doesn’t make the mistake of bringing the parable-like qualities of his tale to the surface. He focuses on the story and on bringing his characters to life, and lets the rest take care of itself; the metaphor is all the more powerful for being “found” rather than imposed. This is a true story, and what Penn has in common with his protagonist is an absolute commitment to—and an almost prodigious gift for—honesty. Scene for scene, I don’t think there is a single false note in the movie, and though the film is long, there’s nothing here that feels superfluous. All the characters bring something unique to the story; their presence serves to develop Chris as a character, giving him a context he would otherwise lack—their affection deepens him in our eyes. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as Chris’s parents, Jena Malone as his sister, Vince Vaughn as his friend and employer Wayne, Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker as an aging hippie couple he rides with, Hal Holbrook as Ron Franz, Kristen Stewart, as the achingly beautiful teenage girl who takes Chris to Salvation mountain, all provide bittersweet memories—snapshots of the heart—that Chris takes with him into the wild.

Penn occasionally overdoes his effects, most particularly his use of slow motion, and at times the film veers dangerously close to narcissism with imagery fit for aftershave commercials. And there are a couple of times when he borders on self-consciousness (such as when the old man Ron talks of God’s light and the sun breaks through the clouds); but these are just glitches in an otherwise flawless tapestry. Into the Wild is a tour-de-force, and yet (besides these moments) it never seems to be working on getting an emotional reaction. Penn doesn’t mess around; he gets his effects and moves on, his style is clean and confident—both poetic and prosaic at the same time. He lets the power of the images—and the emotional punch of the tale itself—carry the movie along. The film builds gradually, lyrically, with all the grace and tempo of an epic poem, into a devastating crescendo of imagery and a heartbreaking climax.

The empathy Penn shows for his characters (inseparable from the actors), his affinity for everyday Middle America (the film is shot entirely on location, often in Chris' exact "footprint," according to Penn), and the honesty and pathos of the film would be remarkable in any artist, but for someone once married to Madonna who has spent the past twenty-five years as a world famous movie star (Penn’s breakthrough role was in Taps, at 21 years old), it’s testimony to Penn’s integrity as an artist that the film is almost entirely devoid of inauthentic touches or condescension. It seems to come directly from his heart to us.

Into the Wild is an X-ray of the heart, showing all its intricacies and flaws, its longings and wounds. It draws a delicate yet raw portrait of the human condition honestly and compassionately, and it reveals the tragedy, not in Chris’ death, but in the possibility that his death was the only honest response to a life he refused to take part in. What Penn has done—besides the formidable task of presenting this sorrowful tale in a straightforward and truthful fashion—is what the greatest poets have always strived to do: to reveal the soul’s longings, and reflect our own souls back at us.

As Pauline Kael once wrote (of Francis Coppola’s Godfather Part Two): that’s the voice of the authentic hero.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Devil Wears Prada, Mr Brooks

OK, after that last one, don't expect any long, philosophical posts for a while, I feel pretty much talked out so far as that goes, and I guess disrupting routines and becoming inaccessible might include no longer broadcasting all my latest realizations and so, potentially, letting the air out of them. We'll see if it works but meanwhile I am going to try and keep up this blog more regularly albeit also in a lighter and more journal-esque fashion. I just got a few commissions to write some reviews for The List, a Scottish magazine (like Time Out for Edinburgh) and I'll be sure and post any and all reviews I write for them here at the blog.

I continue to watch movies at an average of maybe four or five a week; recently I saw The Devil Wears Prada, which to my surprise I quite enjoyed, mostly for Meryl Streep's beautifully nuanced performance. This is normally the sort of movie I would feel almost morally obliged to despise, but it was actually very nicely put together, slick and often facile, yes, but also lively and sharp, and as light and pleasing as puff pastry. Also, Stanley Tucci is always a pleasure to watch, and Anne Hathway is certainly easy on the eyes. But Streep is a revelation. She has become an actress to watch, after two decades of lifelessly studied performances, she has really come into her own in the last ten years or so.

Mr. Brooks is probably the worst movie that I have enjoyed in a long time - there's no reason this preposterous nonsense should make even a passably entertaining movie, but somehow it does. Mostly it's because of Costner (as Brooks) and Hurt (as Brooks' personal devil), and the delightful running repartee they keep up through the film. Like You Kill Me - which I'll review here soon - it's about a killer who goes to AA meetings, the difference being that here Brooks is addicted to killing, not booze, and yes, he is trying valiantly to quit! His condition goes so deep, however, that it's congential - his daughter has inherited his blood lust too. Then there is Dane Cook as a sleazy amateur photographer who gets shots of Brooks' at work and blackmails him into letting him come along on his next murder. Most risable of all, there's Demi Moore as a tough-as-nails, hunch-following cop who is also a millionaire heiress. Oh, and let us not forget another serial killer called the Hangman who has escaped from jail and wants revenge on Demi for putting him away, and yes, all these separate strands are woven together without a shred of concern for the finer points of realism. By all rights, Mr. Brooks should be an out-and-out stinker, but somehow, it's rather fun. Not that I am recommending it, however. I was probably just in the mood for a brazenly bad movie. Costner remains an enjoyably inventive, underrated actor, however, and Hurt is never less than scintillating. He seems to have taken of late to playing scions of darkness, and like Kingsley, it suits him to a T.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

A Glimpse Into the Abyss: The Sex Traffic Industry in the UK

Yesterday I went into the West End to see Ocean’s 13 and meet up with Emma Thompson, a well-known actress and scriptwriter.

It was raining so I decided not to cycle in. Because of a late bus and traffic, I didn’t make it in time to see the movie, so I wandered around a bit then headed to Trafalgar Sq, where I was supposed to meet Emma later on. It was a very loose arrangement, made not with her but with one of her publicity people. Since ET lives nearby, I knew her address and had corresponded with her a few times recently, trying to get an interview for this magazine. Emma had passed on a message saying she was very busy (as usual) but that she'd be at “the installation” all week if I wanted to meet her. I had no idea what installation, so I did a Google search and found out she was taking part in a sort of art exhibition, designed to bring attention to the sex traffic industry.

“Every year thousands of young women are lured to the UK and brutally coerced into a life of sexual exploitation. Bought and sold, they are not visibly branded or shackled, but trapped in local massage parlors and behind the respectable net curtains of suburbia, they are forced to service punter after punter. These women are not sex objects, but daughters sisters and mothers with the same hopes and aspirations as you.”

I got to Trafalgar Sq and found the installation. It was a sort of makeshift tunnel or tube wrapped in black tauplin, and there was a long line of people waiting to go in. Since it was still raining and I was the only person in London without an umbrella, I didn’t feel like standing in line. I went to look for Emma but she was nowhere around. Since I wanted to say that I’d seen the installation when I did find her, I resigned myself to standing in line, and as it happened the line moved pretty fast.

The first stage of “the journey” entailed peering through small key-shaped holes at little scenes of cloth dolls and tiny furniture, showing the kind of environment that the future “sex slaves” had originally come from, then the arrival of a sex trafficker (a woman) to lure them away from their homes, into the hellish new circumstances. It wasn’t clear exactly how the girls were lured, but presumably it was with promises of easy passage to the new land, and of work when they got there, without ever specifying what such work would entail. Traffickers prey upon the naiveté and trusting nature of the girls, and it’s perhaps easy in retrospect to say that the girls ought to have suspected something. But how many of us have been fooled in similar ways—by our tendency to believe the best about people—out of a fervent desire to get what we want? (Which is why drug dealers find it so easy to con their clients, for example.)

The next stage involved standing in the darkness listening to music, mixed with women’s voices and sounds of despair and confusion. This led to the third stage, in which we were invited to peer through face-sized holes in the wall, only to find ourselves staring into a mirror. In the mirror, our own faces appeared atop photographic, life-size images of scantily clad female bodies, obviously prostitutes. This was a crude but effective device, and my first response was appreciatory (and perhaps defensive) laughter.

The next stage was by far the most powerful—a recreation of a room in which the business transaction occurred. There was a single bed, a mechanism underneath causing the mattress to undulate up and down rhythmically. On the sheet were what looked like shit stains. A trash can in the corner overflowed with soiled tissue paper; a box of condoms by the bed, make-up and other random trinkets on a mantelpiece, a mirror with lipstick stains, a board on the wall with the prices for various sex acts, and so forth. The room was rank and foul with the sticky, sweet and sour odor of sweat and despair. It was about now that I began to feel physically sick.

The next stage was about “the customer”: photographs on the walls (presumably of actors) showing various different types and ages of guys, drinking in pubs, hanging on the beach, playing darts, etc. On the audio, various male voices were discussing their experiences with paid sex. Whether or not the voices were of actors (my guess) or real punters, this part of the installation wasn't especially convincing, but it was interesting to hear the various justifications.

Then we were asked to gaze into a large black hole and imagine the Abyss. This seemed kind of superfluous to me. The whole thing was an abysmal experience.

The last stage entailed listening to a recorded interview with one of the girls who had been through the ordeal, and who eventually made it out the other side. She described the whole process from innocence to experience. When she arrived in the UK (aged 19), she had never seen a man naked; a month later, she was having sex with up to 40 guys a day. She described being unable to get their smell off her. She’d been told that once she earned 20,000 pounds for her traffickers, she'd be free to go. That didn’t happen; even after she’d earned the money, they kept her working. After a while she became numb, a machine. She no longer even knew who she was. The experiences were so relentlessly unpleasant that she began to black them out. People can adapt to anything to survive. But there is always a cost. Stick a relatively normal person in abominable circumstances, and eventually they will come to accept them as normal. In a sense, they must become aberrations themselves in order to fit in. Spend enough time in Hell and you have to let the demons in, just to get some peace.

Eventually she made it out. The police arrested her along with a bunch of other girls, and refused to believe her story. She is now living in London , and seems to be “over” her ordeal. Does one ever get over something like that? Let’s just say she has come through it.

I don’t normally write about this kind of thing. I mean, I write about it, but as fiction. I don’t report on it, and it is draining me just to try. I can’t find the words. It all sounds so mundane. There’s no way to “dramatize” something like this. It is too horrendous to need any dramatizing. Yet the mere facts don’t suffice either. I think it’s because it is both mundane and fantastic at the same time. Is there any horror greater than this, any worse a fate to endure? Yet it is absolutely inevitable given our current situation, our social, political, psychological and sexual condition—as human beings. When you put all these distorted factors together, this kind of thing is just one of the necessary outcomes. By “necessary,” I mean in the sense of reaping what we have sown. Horrendous as these circumstances are in and of themselves, they are actually only the symptoms of a greater condition: the disease called “the world.”

The Helen Bamber Foundation ( ), Michael Korzinski, Emma Thompson, and all the people involved with this need courage to do what they are doing. I don’t mean to stick their necks out politically (although the primary intent behind this is to get the UK government to cast their vote with the 9 other countries already committed—10 being the required number—and implement the laws necessary to prevent further exploitation). I mean that it is courageous of them to dedicate so much of their time and energy to something so palpably unpleasant, so unappetizing, to allow it to infiltrate their lives, their thoughts and dreams. Let’s face it, most of us would really rather not know about it. And if we have to know, we will do our damnedest not to think about it for too long. Such knowledge weighs heavy on the soul. There is a loss of innocence with every dark and ugly truth about human nature that is allowed to take root in us.

So yeah, seeing the installation was pretty disturbing. The timing was especially uncanny, because I am writing a script now about a guy who turns a young girl into his sex slave, keeps her in his basement for eight years, until she is little more than a machine for his own gratification. And here I was, confronted with a reality no less dark and twisted, in fact more so, because it is reality. Although my script certainly never glamorizes the subject, it does attempt to make it entertaining—it’s a movie, after all. There was nothing entertaining about this installation. I left feeling like I’d been kicked in the stomach. Like I was polluted. Like I never wanted to have sex again.

It wasn’t guilt I felt, or even complicity exactly. But it wasn't moral outrage either. I didn’t feel anger or disgust at the people who engineered such atrocities. (I would if I saw them, of course.) What I felt was a sense of sadness and horror, a creeping nausea and despair at the state our souls are in, and the fact that our sexuality—the most sacred and powerful and creative force within us—has been reduced to this.

In the end, are the exploiters any less damned than their victims? Considerably more so, I’d say. The image that came to my mind, later, was of myriad souls trying desperately to claw their way out of Hell. And despite their all being in the same Hell together, there was no possibility of contact, communication, or compassion between them.

And yet there is complicity, all down the line. The young girls wanted to improve their conditions, hoping for a better life somewhere, and their desire overrode their innate sense of caution and common sense, making them easy prey for unscrupulous predators. The traffickers, taking their cue, exploited these young girls for profit, in order to improve their conditions and get a piece of the hellish pie which they no doubt consider their due. There is no end to the ways we justify what we do. They probably tell themselves that anyone dumb enough to trust them deserves whatever they get. Or that a few months of having sex with strangers never harmed anyone. They will say that everybody wins in such an arrangement: they get rich, the girls get what they want, and the punters get their jollies. And the punters, the closest to you and I, regular folk, can kid themselves that a little consensual exploitation never hurt anyone. But the truth is something else. The truth is that everybody loses.

There seems no sense in casting stones here. Souls in hell will do anything, ANYTHING, to get out. They don’t care how many other souls they have to drag down in their frantic attempt to get free. The tragedy is that the endless clawing and thrashing only digs us all deeper, into the Pit.

Seems like the only thing we can do is grow wings.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Fast Food Nation, The Hoax, Hallstrom, Network, Kubrick

Fast Food Nation is a goddamn masterpiece, not a word I use often (masterpiece, that is, not goddamn). Linklater got it just right, the blend of documentary with drama, making his points without getting didactic or heavy-handed, and slowly building to the grisly climax: the cows happy in their pens and then showing us in the most ruthless fashion the horrendous fate in store for them. Kris Kristofferson is great, he has the best line in the movie: "It's like something out of science fiction." No shit. Without ever being ponderous or preachy, the movie shows how satanic/life-destroying modern society has become. Linklater is really the only guy doing this stuff, and with this movie, for the first time since Waking Life, he totally pulled it off. There was nothing at all wrong with the movie, that I could see, everyone in it was great, Hawke, Kinnear, Arquette, Willis, and all the unknowns. But boy was it dark. Probably the darkest movie to make the mainstream in a while. I guess critics (never mind mass audiences) didn't go for it, huh? No wonder. I bet a sizeable % of people who saw it wished they hadn't. They sure as shit didn't feel like stopping off at Burger King afterwards! The movie really blew me away.

Just saw The Hoax, loved it, though once it was over I realized that, though it was a wonderful story, it wasn't quite a wonderful movie. The reason is that Lasse Hallstrom has no distinguishing features as a director. He just tells the story and moves on, turning his films out like cookies. Once Around, Gilbert Grape, Cider House Rules, An Unfinished Life, I even liked Casanova, and besides the confectionary of Chocolat, the only real misstep has been The Shipping News). Yet besides Grape, none of them quite rise above the level of delightful whimsy. The Hoax is his best, most substantial, movie since Grape, and mostly this is due to Gere, who is superb, and really beings Clifford Irving to life, creating one of the most memorable movie characters I've seen in years. This is probably his best role. Oh, yes, that is the same Clifford Irving from F for Fake, a great little underseen documentary film by Orson Welles.

I saw Network recently, having only seen it once years and years before. I was disappointed overall, thought it was a great script but only a good movie. Lumet's direction was flat and leaden,. Then I read Kael on the movie (she scorned it) and I wondered if it was even a good movie (don't you hate that, a great reviewer like Kael can make you doubt your own opinions – which is always my own objective as a film writer, the power of lucid prose to persuade). Talk about polemic – she's right I think in saying that the characters are all just mouthpieces for Chayefsky's rants. But boy, what rants! The best scene is Ned Beatty's speech to Howard, it really makes the head spin with its insights. A major flaw, however, is that the film doesn't manage to make us care when Beel gets shot. To me that causes the whole thing to fall apart, leaving me with a feeling of indifference, a real downer after some of the movies highs.

You could argue that it wasn't supposed to be emotionally involving, but only intellectually—like the films of Kubrick. But I'm detached enough already, and I don't care for these kinds of intellectual films any more than Kael did. I demand emotional involvement from a movie, that's what I love about movies! There are a few key exceptions (Badlands) in which the coldness is part of the beauty and even the meaning of the film – the result being that though I may not be involved with the characters, I am emotionally moved (Badlands is a euphoric experience because it's such awesome filmmaking). If a work doesn't move me emotionally, however, I don't really see how it can be called art. It might be intellectually stimulating, but that's just philosophy. I guess Godard is a good example, since he did film-essays which I loved (some of them) because they were exciting, the excitement of ideas (funnily enough, Kael was a big admirer of Godard). I think perhaps the key is whether a work that's "cold" or removed is pretentious or playful (Weekend was pretentious, Band of Outsiders was playful, god I love the dance sequence in that film – a rare case of what I would call "pure cinema"!). Barry Lyndon was beautiful to look at, but its coldness was a drag, it took itself too seriously, like all Kubrick's later films (post-Strangelove).

The reason Peckinpah is the quintessential filmmaker to me is that his films are imbued with passion—he's the opposite of Kubrick, who is the antithesis of a real moviemaker, to my mind, making it so ironic that he's lauded as the greatest of the greats! I think it's probably because people are in awe of the intellect. I'm not, however, since my own intellect is over-developed, and I know how easy it is to impress with a few cleverly chosen words (or images). But it's really just necrophilia, in the end. Only by bringing characters to life and engaging the audience to feel for them do we enter into the realms of true creation—alchemy.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Inland Empire, The Breach, Disturbia

A word about INLAND EMPIRE, which I saw a few months back but didn’t get around to writing about. Beyond doubt the most ____ film I have ever seen. Fill in the blank. Original. Indulgent. Weird. Personal. Incoherent. Indescribable. Alienating?

If nothing else, now we know what it's like to be inside someone else's head for three hours. Too bad Lynch couldn’t be bothered to apply his genius to telling a story while he was at it. I mean, the style was impeccable and inspired. But the content? Uh… It was definitely an hour too long, also, making INLAND EMPIRE a prime example of a film artist having too much freedom.

That said the film is inspiring in many ways, because it shows how primitive a style can be, and still be effective. In fact, the rawness of the movie actually made it more effective, more disturbing and atmospheric. I’d love to see this approach used to tell a traditional narrative story, because it would make the most ordinary scenes seem extraordinary, otherworldly. (The trouble with EMPIRE is that it tends to cancel itself out – weird, dreamlike handling of scenes that are already irrational or even incoherent, leaves us with nothing much to respond to.) This raw, avant-garde approach is especially effective for the horror form, I think, and if I ever wind up making my own Vampire movie — i.e. directing the script myself to protect it from outside interference – I would probably use I.E. as a template. It’s a way to make “big” movies on a very intimate, low budget scale.

More recently, probably the best film I've seen over the past couple of months of silence was THE BREACH, with Chris Cooper and Ryan Philippe, an actor I used to despise (for his smug and smarmy performance in Cruel Intentions, a terrible movie)… The Breach is a little flat, it resembles an HBO special more than a “real” movie, but the film’s austerity works in its favor. It’s tightly scripted, directed with subtlety, finesse, and tension, and superbly acted. Above all, it works as an unusually affecting character portrait, that of a real-life CIA agent who switched sides for unfathomable reasons and became a Russian spy. In every way, this is the movie that THE GOOD SHEPHERD fails to be.

I also just saw DISTURBIA, probably the most sheerly enjoyable movie I've seen for a while. The fact that I can talk about DISTURBIA this way with a straight face goes to show how starved we are for good, diverting suspense movies, most especially in the horror/slasher genre, which this is, sort of (predictably the film goes flat once it gets to the killer vs. kids show down). In this genre, if the movie doesn’t insult our intelligence, we may feel pathetically grateful, and DISTURBIA manages to avoid the usual clichés of crushingly obvious dialogue, labored direction, etc, that quickly render most similar movies unwatchable within the first ten minutes. The director, D.J. Caruso, does an impressive job handling the material, turning an only mildly inspired warm-over of REAR WINDOW into a cracking teenage yarn, offering the kind of unabashed movie pleasures that we once got from John Hughes movies, but that are increasingly hard to find these days. The film is terrific when it stays with the kids, but it completely wastes its two adult stars, Carrie Anne Moss (remember Trinity?), who has next to nothing to do, and most especially David Morse. Morse is a wonderfully soulful actor, a real gentle giant that only Sean Penn has ever put to good use (INDIAN RUNNER, CROSSING GUARD), but he seems to have taken to slumming of late, hiding out in “heavy” roles (first 16 BLOCKS, now this) – god knows why, because it’s hard to imagine a less villainous presence than Morse – he’s a 6 foot teddy bear. He’s physically imposing, sure, which is presumably why he gets cast; but one look in those eyes, and we know he could never hurt a fly.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Attitude of Gratitude: The Secret

There's a line in Castaneda that perhaps has stayed with me more than all the countless things of value in those books—for the way it cuts through the guff and gets straight to the heart of the matter (I am paraphrasing): "What few people realize is how hard we work at feeling bad, and that we can work just as hard at feeling good."

In a nutshell, this is what The Secret is all about.

Don’t worry, I’m not writing to share with you the “secret” of “the power of positive thinking.” If you’re on this blog, chances are you already know this “secret.” And if you’re anything like me, it’s familiar to the point of contempt.

When I started watching the movie I was resisting it. I was thinking, “I don’t need to see this, I already know this!” The film seemed facile and asinine. I persisted however, and in retrospect it was as much an emotional resistance as an aesthetic one. By the end, I was weeping tears of gratitude.

Make no mistake, The Secret is a tacky New Age dish. In its presentation, it’s every bit as cheesy, grating, American TV-style as What the Bleep Do We Know? The difference is that the cheese somehow works here, because somehow it manages to be touching rather than infuriating. This is probably because the subject is less “scientific” and more inspirational. Unlike Bleep, which tries to stimulate the intellect but ends up insulting it, The Secret appeals directly to the emotions. The fact that it’s kind of dumb actually enhances its effectiveness.

What made Bleep so obnoxious (to me) was the feeling that the people interviewed seemed to be showing off their superior knowledge; there was a self-serving smugness to them and to the movie. The Secret features a similar bunch of philosophers, authors, and quantum physicists, but the difference is that they genuinely want to communicate their experience, not to show off their intelligence (though there’s a bit of that), but out of appreciation and gratitude for what they’ve learned. They are moved to share the joy they’ve found with anyone who will listen. (It can hardly be a coincidence that the one person in The Secret who did grate on me was a carry-over from Bleep.)

To return to don Juan’s advice: If nothing else, The Secret has helped me realize just how hard I’ve worked, over the years, at feeling bad, and just how successful I've been! In a twisted kind of way, that’s something to be proud of – not for having made myself feel bad, of course (though it’s nothing to be ashamed of), but for having worked so hard and accomplished so much! Proud is perhaps not the word, is it? Let’s say aware. It’s evidence of my application, determination, focus and of the power of thought and unbending intent. My God, think if I just turned that focus around! Anything would be possible!

So yeah. It’s time for a change.

This cheesy little movie has allowed me to finally see that I am ready for a change. I've been ready for quite some time. Make no mistake. This is not a decision; I've made such a “decision” countless times, to little or avail. What it is, rather, is an acceptance. I have changed. Now it’s time to live it. It’s time to appreciate who I am, and how much I have changed already—in order to change some more. To reap the gains of all those self-inflicted pains.

One of the most insightful points in the movie was how, when you look at your life and think, “This is who I am,” you are actually living in the past, because all that has happened so far is just the sum of the thoughts and the intent you've had so far. But your future and who you are in this moment depends on what you think and intend in this moment. We can't define ourselves by the thoughts, acts, and events of the past—we mustn’t, because then there’s no way for us to change. (We define ourselves and get locked into that definition.) When you look at the past and the sum of the things that make up your present life, why not look at it with gratitude for all the things you are glad about? And then you can set about changing the rest of it.

One of the people in the movie compares the effects of living with this “attitude of gratitude” to that of a loving marriage—between ourselves and the Universe. When a woman shows appreciation and happiness for the little things her man does to please her, the man, inspired by the joy of pleasing his beloved, begins to really shower on the love and affection, and so the gifts and caresses, the appreciation and happiness, just keep on coming. We are that blushing bride, and the Universe is just dying to fill us up with all the joy at its disposal.

I started out watching the movie thinking, “Do I really need to be reminded that we have the power to change our lives by thought, and that the Universe is really a beautiful and benevolent place?”

By the end, energy was coursing through me, and the answer was Hell, yes! Every goddamn day and every blessed moment in it. Please! Remind me!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Alpha Dog and the Banality of Evil

Yes I know I said I was keeping silence for a while, and I really mean it. What happened was that I just saw a movie that had probably the greatest emotional impact on me since I saw Blue Velvet, twenty years ago, and my silence is being broken by a wail. This is not because it's a great movie, however (it isn't), but because the the tale it tells is, to the best of my knowledge (i intend to do research) true. And though I am usually rather thick-skinned about these things, for some reason this tale has cut me to the quick, leaving me dazed and confused and melancholic.

Alpha Dog left my psyche duly mauled by the grotesque depravity of our times. Seems like there should be a new word coined for this sort of thing, because “tragedy” just doesn’t do it. It’s not a tragedy, at least as the movie shows it, because these are not noble characters undone by some basic flaw, they are intrinsically worthless people, soulless beings. Yet I don’t think the movie was successful so far as showing that, either. Because either these kids are lost souls, damned to evil acts by their own tormented, twisted lives, or they are just robots, TV babies. The movie didn’t really make its mind up about that, and the kids seemed too “normal” somehow, to be party to such an atrocity. You could argue that this is the point, that it is becoming “normal” to just go along with stuff like this, just more “whatever,” total desensitization. But if so, these kids are really just zombies, and the film didn't give that impression. Instead, the film made the characters likeable at the same time they were utterly loathsome, so it was difficult to believe they could really have done what they did. This is especially true of the Timberlake character, and I think the flaw was in the script itself: there was nothing to show that he was so weak or morally vacuous (or so stupid) as to go along with the murder as he did.

Cassavetes was definitely going for a Larry Clark effect, and he did a decent job of it, but the film needed to be rawer than it was, and even more intense. Traumatic as it was, it actually went easy on the audience—a movie that really captured the appalling evil of those events would have left audiences stunned, reeling, like they’d been in a head-on car wreck, barely unable to get up out of their seats at the end of it (I mean the kind of intensity that Lynch got in the Frank scenes of Blue Velvet, or de Palma in Casualties of War).

I am always a sucker for a movie that portrays just how deeply fucked up—beyond all redemption for sure—our current situation is, and Alpha Dog certainly succeeds at that. It’s a powerful movie, but like I say, there seemed something lacking there. Even so, I wonder if it wasn’t too intense for critics, because it didn’t get that well reviewed, and yet it’s easily the best work Cassavetes has done since his early films (Unhook the Stars, She’s the One, after which he went straight to hacksville), and it’s definitely one of the best films of its year.
The film will stay with me, because of that poor kid and what he went through, such a truly senseless death. I guess it goes to show that evil really is banal. Like I say, “tragedy” doesn’t do it justice.

In the on-going Trial to determine Humanity's Fate - whether mere apocalypse or total extinction is to be the sentence - the case for the prosecution might well rest on the evidence provided by Alpha Dog and the horrendous events depicted. Because humanity entire is to be judged by the actions of the worst among us, as well as the best, and what is the case for the defense? It is hard, to say the least, to imagine any single act sufficiently profound in goodness to counterbalance this grisly evidence. We await Christ's testimony, of course. The devil's argument is long and convoluted, consisting as it does of the last 7000 years of human history. But unless Christ has a bona fide miracle up his sleeve, I fear God may well shrug and say, "Oh well. You can't win 'em all. Send them all straight to Hell."

Satan makes work for idle hands? Welcome to the Age of Leisure, in which evil is apparently the only adequate relief from the crushing banality of living.

In the holocaust, six million people died for a madman's dream. Yet that event cannot
surpass (for me) the horror of a single act of wanton and senseless violence like this. You might wonder what could be the reasoning behind such a statement, but it's very simple. However appalling, we can at least understand why the holocaust happened.

What could be more "evil" than an act that is utterly devoid of meaning?

See the movie.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Just to let you all know that I won't be blogging (or emailing) so much anymore, for a while at least. The reason is, I am in process of unplugging to save what is left of my health and sanity, and this entails reducing the ways in which i am exposed to the various media of this postmodern hell society, meaning especially internet (i don't even have a TV). The fact is, I am addicted to my computer and it's time we spent less time together.

The only way for me to be healthy/happy, i believe, is to live in the moment. This has become such a cliche that we no longer have a clue what it means or how damn hard it really is. The preliminary step entails making sure I have time, endless time, on my hands, so I can start each day with no clear idea of what I will be doing or how I will fill the hours. That way, I can actualy find out what I feel like doing, instead of chasing from one pursuit to the next, one distraction to another, simply to keep myself busy enough not to have to think about how absurd and senseless life is (and how soon it will all be over).

So instead of going from one compulsive writing project to the next, I guess this means I will be spending my time walking on the heath, doing jigsaw puzzles, reading, playing guitar, a little tai chi, hanging out with any folks bold or idle enough to wander into my world, stuff like that.
In a word I am going to try hard to become a layabout good for nothing! (of the healthy variety, naturally)

i had a dream last night that the reason i had failed in my goals was because the Spirit had plans for me and was making sure I didn't become a cruel, obnoxious asshole until IT was ready to turn me into one! This is the test of power, and until i am ready for it, i better get used to (and start enjoying) being a powerfless schmuck like everybody else (barring the tyrannical assholes who run the world and rule the media!)

Nonetheless, the point of the dream was that the Spirit would use me exactly as it saw fit, and so none of the rest mattered, at the end of the day. I may as well enjoy life in the meantime.
It is impossible to enjoy life while seeking after confirmation of one's specialness.
So to hell with it. Time to accept I am a nobody like everybody else. Cybernetically speaking, this means I won't be around much for a while, making assertions of my superior intellect or stuff like that (at least till the spirit commands me to)!
I am off in search of the moment


Sunday, May 13, 2007

Face in the Crowd & Splendor in the Grass: Elia Kazan's Primal Sympathy

“The performing arts, theater and film, can be as meaningful as the drama of living itself.” —Elia Kazan

I just saw two of the best movies I have seen in a while, both directed by Elia Kazan (so damn good in fact that now I have to squeeze them on my 101 Best American Movies list): Face in the Crowd & Splendor in the Grass.

Face in the Crowd was made in 1957 and stars Andy Griffith as “Lonesome” Rhodes, a country drifter with a guitar and a rowdy talent for song and sweet talk. Local radio host Patricia O’Neal discovers Rhodes in a county jail and turns him into a radio and then a TV star; with his canny knack for appealing to the common folk—possible guileless, possibly not—Rhodes becomes an enormously powerful political figure. In the words of James Wolcott, Rhodes is “a rough diamond charismatic . . . who catapults into national celebrity only to become the puppet of a populist scheme orchestrated by corporate overlords, who exploit his likeability as a lever of social control.”

Splendor in the Grass was made in 1962 and stars Natalie Wood and a very young Warren Beatty (in his first screen role) as star-crossed (and puritan-plagued) lovers in late 1920s Kansas. Despite being 50 and 45 years old, respectively, both these films seem surprisingly modern; they haven’t dated in any way that reduces the pleasure of watching them. If anything, they may even have improved with age, especially when compared to movies of the present—which may seem depressingly superficial and frivolous by comparison.

By today’s standards, Splendor is certainly melodramatic; yet for all its hysterical qualities, I think it would be far too intense for today’s audiences. And while Face is a little simplistic, its depiction of the mass media’s role in politics and in shaping the public opinion has proved amazingly prescient, if not prophetic. (Though it may at times be facile, I don’t think it’s any less searing or intelligent an indictment than, say, Michael Richie’s The Candidate or Levinson/Mamet’s Wag the Dog, and it’s a much better film.)

What’s most striking about both films is the sophistication of the writing (Face was written by Budd Schulberg, Splendor by William Inge). You don’t get scripts like this nowadays—or at least they don’t make it to the screen—mostly because this kind of literary, theatrical writing is no longer fashionable (perhaps it’s not possible, either). Nowadays, movies are either mainstream genre fare or “independent realism”—films that opt for everyday banality over engaging story (e.g., Little Miss Sunshine). Movies may have escaped the hysteria and corniness of melodrama, but in the process they have lost something valuable: the emotional intensity of good, biting social drama.

Face and Splendor are realistic films for the period; but they are not by any stretch of the imagination fly-on-the-wall, kitchen-sink dramas. They are never banal or mundane like so many “realistic” movies today. They’re more “theatrical”: the scenes are built and dramatically structured, rich with good, old-fashioned character dynamics and psychological undercurrents. Today’s movies are more kinetic, and watching this fantastic double bill, I realized how much I miss seeing the “old-style” kind of movie, films that involve you emotionally, to a degree today’s “sophisticated” (i.e., cynical) audiences would probably laugh at—because they would resent being made to feel this deeply. Yet emotional realism is what Kazan was best at, and what made him one of the great American directors (actually, he was Greek).

Both films are utterly different—one wouldn’t guess they were made by the same man—and it’s hard to say which I liked better. The first hour of Face transported me to a kind of movie heaven I haven’t experienced in ages; the second hour is less effective—and certainly less enjoyable—but even so, the film manages to hold its themes together and come through triumphantly in the end, no mean feat considering how ambitious it is. Patricia O’Neal is an amazingly beautiful actress and an unusual presence; whenever she’s on screen, it feels like we’re watching a contemporary movie. She has a remarkable ease, a naturalness, unusual even in actors today (it’s most striking when she smiles—she practically lights up the set). On the other hand, I’d never heard of Andy Griffith, and it’s easy to see why he never became a movie star. He’s inspired in the early scenes—a real tornado bumpkin—but less convincing later on, when he needs to be a darker, more complex, Machiavellian character. It’s not really his fault, however, because Schulberg and Kazan haven’t developed the character as much as they needed to either, and with or without Griffith, the film never quite delivers on its original promise. Even so, it’s an astonishingly audacious tale, as relevant today as it ever was, maybe even more so. It’s a sort of archetypal movie, like a template, a Platonic model for the tale of a nobody becoming a somebody, and in the process, being turned into (revealing his true colors as) a scumbag.

Intense as Face in the Crowd is, however, and fascinating as the characters are, in the end they are perhaps not fully convincing. Splendor in the Grass, on the other hand, even while more overtly soap operatic, rings true, and is the more successful (and emotionally wrenching) of the two films. The title is taken from a poem by Wordsworth, “Intimations of immortality from recollections of early childhood”:

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering

Inge, the writer, takes not just his title but his central theme from this poem. The film shows how our youthful dreams for the future must in the end submit to the limitations of reality. In other words, it’s the story of everyone’s life; but since I’ve recently gone through a particularly devastating realization of just this (as well as turning 40), the film struck me as especially poignant. The ardent, devotional love between the two main characters, Bud and Deanie (Beatty and Wood), is both convincing and touching; in movie terms, lovers like this simply have to wind up together. So when circumstances take over and they are torn apart, we trust they will eventually overcome the obstacles and be reunited. But in the end, they go their separate ways, and are left with the tender ache of melancholia for what once was and can never be. With its bittersweet ending, the movie adheres to a kind of integrity that has nothing to do with audience demands or genre conventions, and everything to do with fidelity to the story. Inge writes what he knows to be true.

Such authenticity—not only of the story but the personalities and performances—is rare in movies of any period, and Kazan has a remarkable gift for it, and for blending melodrama with authenticity. Splendor and Face are dramatic, intense, and hugely entertaining. They are never mundane, yet they capture the truth of their subjects to a remarkable degree. Although his films are stylized, Kazan seems almost obsessively dedicated to drawing the truth from his scenes. Though he doesn’t shy away from realism, he doesn’t get bogged down by it either.

People change; they grow, they move on; though at the time it seems literally unthinkable, the passions of youth, the splendor in the grass, fade and die and turn into something else. The sadness of living is inseparable from the wisdom gained by it.

Watching these films back to back reminded me how much I adore movies. It also reminded me of why. At their best, movies not only provide a respite and refuge from the harshness of our lives; they can also renew a passion that is dwindling, and help us to find strength in what remains. They awaken a primal sympathy.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Half Nelson, Old Joy, Deja Vu and the Pleasures of A Total Disregard for Substance

Half Nelson. This doesn’t qualify as an official Dogme work, but Half Nelson—written by Ana Boden and Ryan Fleck, directed by Fleck—may be the closest that mainstream US indie cinema has got to one so far, and it’s a quietly impressive, experimental work. The film has little by way of internal momentum (i.e., story), but it’s carried along by Ryan Gosling’s thoughtful and nuanced performance. As the crack-smoking inner-city teacher with (possibly) a heart of gold but a head filled with cobwebs, Gosling brings a measure of contained intensity to the film that keeps it from drifting off into non-existence. It might sound pretentious to call Half Nelson a “tone poem,” but whatever it is, it succeeds where most movies of its kind fail—fly-on-the-wall filmmaking that, while uneventful and subdued, is never dull. While managing to be intensely lifelike, it creates a lazy, trancelike hold upon us, and to be curiously involving—even suspenseful—despite the apparent lack of a narrative. Actually, there isn’t much I can say about the film—it rather defies analysis or description—except that it’s unique and at times inspired, an almost wholly successful work that would have the markings of a cult classic, if it weren’t so determinedly non-sensationalist as to seem inconsequential by today’s standards. See it for yourself. And maybe you can tell me what the deal is with the cat?

I tired to watch Color Me Kubrick—a showcase for the very talented John Malkovich, about the guy who pretended to be Stanley Kubrick for years and got away with it—but it was such a sloppy, amateurish affair that I gave up after twenty minutes.

Instead I watched Old Joy, which makes Half Nelson look like a Tony Scott film. Old Joy—beautiful title, and there is one good scene that explains it—is really an anti-movie. Not only does nothing happen, but it doesn’t even provide anything by way of character, mood, or atmosphere. It’s a big, relaxing nothing of a movie, more or less indistinguishable from a home movie about two guys who go camping for a night, visit some hot springs, and that’s it. Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy, the singer-songwriter) is watchable enough (though not especially likeable as a character), but besides that there’s nothing much in the film to hold our attention. It’s by no means as tedious as Brokeback Mountain, because at least there is the mild pleasure of seeing genuinely small-time, amateur filmmakers at work (rather than a Hollywood hotshot trying to be “independent”). Even so, the relative critical success of Old Joy is if anything even more unaccountable than that of Mountain. There are no queer cowboys here for politically correct critics to fall over themselves showing tolerance towards, and the only explanation I can offer is that praising the film is a reaction against Hollywood, a rejection of its increasingly bombastic fare. In other words, liking Old Joy, or rather, calling it a good movie—though it’s not strictly a movie at all—is a way of showing superiority and disdain for Hollywood movies. But five years from now, Kelly Reichardt (who directed it and co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond, based on his “story”—huh?), will probably be making a Brad Pitt movie.

Déjà Vu
Speaking of Tony Scott films, this is the latest (though you may not find the accents on the title—French is way too pretentious for Scott), and his latest teaming with the ever watchable Denzel Washington. I have to confess a partiality to the films of the younger of the two Scott brothers; I especially like True Romance, but even his generic fare of the past few years has struck me as top-notch entertainment, and a lot less pretentious or pompous than some of brother Ridley’s work. If Hollywood must needs continue churning out violent plotless/overplotted action thrillers, then they should at least get Tony Scott to make them. Enemy of the People, Spy Games, and Man on Fire (not so much Domino) were state of the art action melodramas that wore their brutal emptiness on their sleeves like medals. Unlike most similar fare, they didn’t leave you feeling gypped for a movie. Scott is all style and no substance (which is why the Tarantino-scripted True Romance is his best film)—but what style! Despite the luke warm reviews, Déjà Vu is not a major disappointment. Although it starts poorly and comes unraveled in the last half hour, it upholds the Scott tradition of jagged action and sizzling high-tech realism that make his films such persuasive and intoxicating nonsense. This time he goes all the way out on a limb, into the hokey sci-fi territory of time travel, yet for most of the movie he pulls it off. Déjà Vu sacrifices realism to formula in the last section (when it sends Denzel back through time to save the girl), but until that point it makes for a pretty convincing treatment of the subject. It’s by no means a time travel classic—it lacks the surreal poetry and romance of The Terminator, and obviously it’s not a screwball gem like Back to the Future; but compared to Paycheck, for example (or to most time travel action movies), it does a stand-up job. The scriptwriters (Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio) provide no more than functional dialogue, but they lucked out with Washington and Val Kilmer to read it, on whose lips even humdrum stuff starts to sizzle. (Kilmer is a little heavy around the jowls these days, however, which is perhaps why he's been given a slightly dormant role, a far cry from how Mamet used him for Spartan.) It’s easy to see how Scott was sold on the script—it provides an impressive scenario—that of using a “worm hole” in space-time to create a window onto the past and so track the criminal in the act of the crime. This breezy little number allows for sequences (such as when Washington “chases” the bad-guy in the past while having to navigate his way through dense highway traffic in the present) that are almost perfect bits of movie business—they offer up maximum excitement with minimum consequence. They are so dazzling, in fact—Scott’s style so audacious, his disregard for substance so complete—that at times the film makes you want to laugh out loud.
The Girl with Green Eyes

I just watched this because the director, Des Davies is the friend of a friend (actress Billie Whitelaw), and he was kind enough to loan me his copy. What follows is taken form my letter to Des. (It was rather difficult to write what amounted to a critique of a work meant for the person who made it!—a first for me—not so much because I had to hold back, but because it’s tricky to find the right tone.) The film is from 1963 and stars Peter Finch, Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave (Vanessa’s sister).

It’s a lovely little movie, and quite remarkable in its way. It holds up considerably better than many of the (more renowned) British films of the period—Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, Charlie Bubbles, etc—some of which are considered classics. It seems a shame it is so little known today. I don’t know the source work by Edna O’Brien, but it didn’t surprise me to learn it came from a novel. I was pleasantly struck almost at once by the film’s dialogue, which seemed unusually realistic and insightful (especially for the period). Something I also found refreshing about the film was its frank presentation of the sexual relationship, the succinct way in which it depicted the mundane pitfalls of romantic love. This is one of my favorite subjects as a writer, and one that all-too rarely gets serious treatment, in movies of any period. I must confess to finding Rita Tushingham less than endearing, however, even a wee bit creepy. This may sound terribly superficial, but I kept wondering if it was intentional (on at least one occasion, you seemed to shoot her deliberately to accentuate that nose!). If it wasn’t intentional, were you aware of it? Because of it, I found I didn’t quite warm to Kate as much as I would have liked, hence was less moved by the film than I would have been, perhaps, with another actress.

What I especially liked about the film, or rather what most impressed me, was the lightness of your touch as a director, the way in which you managed to experiment with style without losing sight of content, i.e., the basic business of telling the story and presenting the characters (who really came to life in a way film characters rarely do). Your style reminded me of Godard from the same period. The film has a hard edge—one reason it has not dated—yet also a soft center, a tenderness. It strikes a very deft balance between straightforward, almost documentary realism and more playful, “cinematic” touches, for which your obvious artistry comes into play. I didn’t think there was a scene in it that rung false—although the scene with the priest didn’t have the weight it needed, and the ending was a bit abrupt.

Peter Finch is a very charismatic presence, and his character had a satisfyingly grounded, no-nonsense quality about it. It helped balance the dreamy moodiness of the girl, who sometimes came off as less “deep” than merely coy. I especially enjoyed Lynn Redgrave—what a performance! Not a false note in it.

It’s rare that a movie earns the term “slice of life” and yet doesn’t make us suffer for it—banging us over the head with excess earnestness and sincerity. The best I can say about Girl (and it’s high praise) is that it’s almost totally convincing and yet never dull—wholly unpretentious without being pedestrian. Most impressive at all, it still seems fresh and alive (though for obvious reasons it’s no longer “daring”) today, forty years later. I think what accounts for its success as a film is the apparent spontaneity with which you handle the scenes, camera, and actors. That spontaneity (or the illusion of it) acts like magical embalming fluid: just like some of those Godard flicks (which I adore), the film has aged in a very pleasing way. It doesn’t seem “old” so much as “experienced.” A film with a past?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers, Harsh Times, Painted Veil, Science of Sleep, Notes on Scandal, Last King of Scotland

Flags of Our Fathers
Clint Eastwood's film is slight and at times uninvolving, but it has a lovely, elegiac quality, and contains some of his best work as a director. Where Eastwood's films used to be characterized by rather clunky ungainly scenes—what I would call slick amateurism (evident even in some of Mystic River)—since Million Dollar Baby he has evolved into a genuinely gifted film artist, with new levels of restraint, subtlety and artistry to draw upon. Apparently, on his way to being 80, he has come of age as a filmmaker. Flags doesn't deliver on the action sequences—it can't outdo Saving Private Ryan—but it has an abundance of genuine feeling, poignancy and pathos, that Spielberg's film lacks. Rather than an anti-war film per se, this is a meditation on war—clearly the work of a man in the twilight of life with the time (and the need) to look more closely at values (e.g., patriotism) that shouldn't be taken for granted.

Science of Sleep
A self-indulgently inspired surrealist jaunt from Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine), this is a film that needs to be persisted in to be enjoyed. If you get through the first half hour, you will probably be glad you stuck it out, because the film belongs to its very own species, being neither comedy nor sci-fi nor drama. It probably gets away with more "quirkiness" than it deserves, thanks to Gael Garcia Bernal in the main role, who manages to ground the self-consciously avant-garde humor and silliness in something more real. Also Charlotte Gainsbourg (daughter of the famous coupling of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin) as the love interest adds something unique to the mix. Like Eternal Sunshine this is a refreshingly close-to-the-bone take on romantic infatuation, and herein lies its greatest strength (the lovers never share a screen kiss). As an attempt at George Méliès/Gilliam/Burton style fantastic cinema, however, it is only partially successful. It attempts far more than it pulls off, but its awkwardness is often touching rather than simply annoying. By all means not for everyone—overall this is an experimental work disguised as a mainstream movie.

Notes on a Scandal
A rather colorless melodrama that I might have found more gripping had I not seen the trailer, which (as is the norm these days) gives away the entire story, twists and all. The only thing this film has going for it, besides the performances, is the morbid fascination of its story (school teacher has an affair with a fifteen-year-old boy and consequently falls into the clutches of a neurotic lesbian). The script by Patrick Marber (Closer) is disappointingly devoid of insight or acerbic wit, and the direction, by Richard Eyre, is at best functional, at worst dreary Channel 4 TV show standard. Judi Dench is flawless, of course, but her character is really little more than an older, lesbian retread of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction—the sexually obsessed predator role, which however realistic, always ends up seeming rather tedious and melodramatic. Cate Blanchett is lovely and ethereal and convincing throughout, but never really affecting, because her character never really comes alive for us. The same goes for the movie.

Last King of Scotland
Another overrated work that I was expecting more from, and despite Forrest Whitaker's sterling performance as Idi Amin (and a very pleasant appearance by the divine Gillian Anderson – blonde with suntan), this is a fairly routine affair. Considering the nature of the material, it's actually rather tame, with none of the searing, scathing intensity of (say) Salvador or Under Fire. The main character played by James McAvoy is unappealingly callow, and although admittedly this is right for the part, the result is that—besides Amin, who is never quite real to us—the film lacks an emotional center. It skirts around the Uganda atrocities (for the very good reason that the central character doesn't know about them until the end), and instead of going for political expose, opts for a more character and suspense driven tale. But frankly, the director Kevin MacDonald (Touching the Void) doesn't have the skill for it. He does a proficient job but no more. Besides a delightful moment in which Amin gives in to a live-saving burst of flatulence, the film has few real surprises.

The Painted Veil
The first hour of this film—based on the book by Somerset Maugham—is rather flat and lifeless, and you may wonder what could possibly happen to justify all these high-production values and prestigious players (Naomi Watts, Edward Norton—always worth watching—and Liev Schreiber). The director, John Curran, rushes through the early scenes without putting much into them, and it's obvious he is trying to get the preliminary business (the courtship, marriage, and infidelity) over with and move on to the real story. Once the disenchanted couple moves to a Cholera-inflicted area—the embittered cuckold's revenge on his bored, frustrated wife—things pick up dramatically. Ironically, the husband's hatred and anger introduces real passion to the affair, and a strange, resentful kind of love slowly develops between them—at which point the film and the performances begin to soar. By the end, something remarkable has happened. In the process of showing how these dried up, desperate characters begin to suffer and feel, how they come alive to each other and themselves, the film begins to cast a lazy, melancholic spell. By the end, we may feel our own hearts slowly breaking. A film that stays with you afterwards, with all the niggling persistence of a doomed love affair, this is a work of restrained beauty and depth.

Harsh Times
Another undiscovered gem, with a phenomenal performance by the ever-amazing Christian Bale, as Jim Davis, a US soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, returning to Los Angeles to look for work and hang out with his former buddies. The film builds slowly to its inevitable, catastrophic climax, and although some of the devices used to show Davis' increasing paranoia and psychosis are formulaic (shaky camera, yellow filters, etc), Bale's performance is subtly affecting. Bale is so real he never allows the film to descend into banality or cliché. Harsh Times is a terrific piece of dark psychodrama, with an unusual degree of authenticity to the scenes. The writer-director, David Ayers, has a solid talent for raw, believable characters and simple, no-nonsense action. He abandons himself to cliché at the end, overdoing the final shoot-out with operatic slow-motion effects when brutal realism would have sufficed (and in fact been far more effective); but for most of the film's length, he keeps us on a razor's edge—the same edge that Davis is walking. Bale's Davis is part Travis Bickle ("solider of the apocalypse"), part Richard Boyle (James Woods' character in Salvador: Davis takes time out in Mexico with the woman he wants to marry), part John Wayne and part American Psycho. He's the all-American fuck up. A far cry from Batman Begins, this is the kind of role Bale should stick to (he also exec-produced the film) if he wants to develop into what he is: one of the best actors working in movies today.