Friday, September 7, 2012

The Usual Mixed Bag: Summer Movie Roundup

Over the years, the meaning of summer movies has changed. As a teen, I remember that about the only films released in hot weather were the blockbusters, the James Bonds, the Star Wars etc. Then things began to change and serious, foreign language, subtitled movies also were sent out to the populace. Nowadays, it’s a veritable smorgasbord of movies on view, though the biggest box office and attendant media coverage still accrues to tent-pole films like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. And while it seems like the kids rule the roost because of all the publicity given to the younger skewing  movies (though many adults go to them, too), there really is a choice for all film tastes. Here is a look at some recent summer releases in Toronto, most still in our theatres and probably in yours, as well. It’s the usual mixed bag when it comes to quality.

Technically, Marley wasn’t a Toronto summer release, as it opened back in May but it hung around all summer and I caught it at my local rep house, the Revue, in July. Kevin MacDonald’s take on the late, legendary reggae superstar Bob Marley is as comprehensive as documentaries ever get. It’s an engrossing, sprawling, 2 1/2 hour movie beginning with Marley’s birth, in a poor part of Jamaica, known as Trenchtown, and continuing through his tumultuous life and loves until his 1981 death of cancer at the young age of 36. Everyone who was anyone in Marley’s life, including his mother, wife, two of his kids, including Ziggy Marley, a star in his own right, some of his mistresses, and people who worked and performed with him, are interviewed in the movie and, if nothing else, they provide an affectionate but unvarnished look at the man and his legacy.

Marley, which recently came out on DVD, has an extraordinary amount of excerpted songs; I counted more than 50, but not as much footage of Marley himself, mainly because not so much of it exists. Remember, he only hit it big a decade or so before his death so MacDonald had to utilize his many interviews to properly fill in the blanks, which he does more than adequately. What powerful footage we do have includes the stunning night in 1978 when Bob brought Jamaica’s two rival politicians, leftist Michael Manley and rightist Edward Seaga, whose followers were engaging in an internecine, violent rivalry through the 70s and 80s, together by clasping his hands along with theirs. That shot of the two enemies linking arms is a powerful testament to what can be done by charismatic figures whose heart is in the right place. (Could you ever imagine The Clash doing so with Margaret Thatcher and her leftist rivals? They wouldn't even have wanted to try and bridge the differences in their fractious country.) And Marley really wanted everybody to get along, pushing that point years before Rodney King uttered that plaintive cry. Marley’s apolitical stance, and he had no nose for politics, was a dangerous one to carry in Jamaica though and it got Marley shot, two years earlier, though his wounds were minor. What’s clear from Marley is that he was something of a naïf (reminding me of Jimi Hendrix, for some reason) and sometimes the world can be a hard place for people like that.

But lest you think the guy was a saint, MacDonald makes clear that Bob Marley’s Rastafarian religion, sexist, even misogynist as it was, meant women were relegated to inferior status and also that Marley didn’t stay faithful to wife Rita (He had 11 children in all, from seven relationships.). Her quiet anguish in some of the interviews is palpable and so is daughter Cedella’s anger at how her father treated her mother. It’s painful to watch her trying and failing to make peace with his infidelities. Marley also didn’t necessarily have to die, ignoring the first signs of cancer until it was too late and had spread to his brain.

Other figures in the film offer a different take on the singer, including Bunny Livingston, the only surviving member of his band The Wailers (Peter Tosh, the most militant and political of the three was murdered in 1987, in a home invasion by a man he had befriended who wanted to rob him). Livingston, who was related to Marley – his father had a child with Bob’s mother, information not in the film – seems bemused by everything he and Bob (and Peter) went through but despite the differences he had with Marley, speaks affectionately of the man. So does Island Record’s Chris Blackwell, who put out some of Marley’s best known albums, but who is slammed in the movie for taking financial advantage of the singer, though he doesn’t get to reply to those charges.

Whatever is said about him in the film, there’s no question that Bob Marley made a difference, as the first black, non-Anglo, non-American international superstar, and he was as big in his day as The Beatles and Elvis Presley, and as inspirational, as Nelson Mandela, in fact, to so many. MacDonald, whose credits include the fine Touching the Void and powerful One Day in September has made a conventional, chronological documentary but one that encompasses all the, sometimes contradictory, aspects of his eventful life. It’s the documentary Marley deserves. 

The Intouchables
 At first glance, The Intouchables (Intouchables), France’s second highest grossing film of all time (behind 2008's Welcome to the Sticks), comes across as another black/white buddy comedy, compete with life lessons, but unlike the increasingly formulaic, sappy American model, the French are incapable of glossing over the painful, dark aspects of life. Thus, the movie is rendered as a lot more honest and smarter than it might otherwise have been.

Based on the true story of Abdel Sellou, an Algerian caregiver who bonded with his white quadriplegic patient, The Intouchables has changed the dynamics of the tale somewhat – the Algerian is now an African immigrant – but stuck to its basic outline. When Philippe, (Francois Cluzet, Tell No One), who was rendered quadriplegic after a hang gliding accident, advertises for a new nurse, he’s surprised when Driss (Omar Sy), a young man from the Parisian banlieues (suburbs but in reality ghettoes) shows up to apply for the position. Driss, who’s just gotten out of prison, clearly has no nursing skills or background, is sarcastic and angry, and oblivious to Philippe’s plight. He’s also only interested in showing the welfare authorities that’s he’s applied for a job so he can keep getting benefits. Philippe, however, sick of the condescension shown him by friends and family, and previous nurses, sees something of his bold self in the young man and hires him anyway. It starts out as a disastrous match-up but soon enough, the two men begin to relate and slowly become friends, learning something along the way about their respective worlds rich and white, poor and black, that they didn't know before. By the film's conclusion, they’ve both benefitted from the shared experience.

Yes, it sounds maudlin, and occasionally it is, but Cluzet and Sy make the film work and writers/directors Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano are savvy enough to utilize their story as an intelligent commentary on French society and race relations. Some American film critics have criticized The Intouchables for making Driss, in their view, into an Uncle Tom caricature but they’re wrongly viewing the movie through their country’s realities of race and that’s not in any way similar to the French fact. So when Driss introduces a hoity toity audience to the delights of Earth, Wind and Fire at a classical concert, he’s educating the French on a culture, despite their love of American jazz, that they know nothing about; unlike the U.S., which is permeated with black influences and personalities. Similarly when Driss is complimented on his suit and tie, and told he looks classy, just like Barack Obama, you’re seeing evidence of a world that knows only one black man, the American President, whom they would consider ‘classy.’ That’s a damning commentary on a racist and myopic society, with two solitudes, black and white which rarely interact. If you doubt that about France, consider that Sy, in a profile in TIME magazine, when the film opened in America, spoke about sending his wife, who is white, to rent an apartment, which would  have been denied him because of the colour of his skin. (Note also that when he took power former French President Nicholas Sarkozy appointed a record number of black cabinet ministers – one!)

As Driss, Sy, who won the Best Actor French Cesar ward, beating out The Artist’s Jean Dujardin, is the film's revelation – I’ve only seen him in 2009’s inventive Micmacs where he played a  nerdy, socially inept ethnographer, totally opposite to his character in this movie. His characterization of Driss, which could have come across as a stereotypical black portrait of an angry black man, never does so and he’s ably matched by the always reliable and consistent Cluzet who harbours a rebellious streak, before and after his accident, that makes one understand what he sees in Driss. (His sadness and anger at never being able to walk again is a sign of a movie that’s not afraid to showcase the cruel realities of life.) Their rapport and some smartly written scenes and dialogue allow The Intouchables to (mostly) surmount its potential clichés and obvious plot. See it before the planned for and no doubt inferior American re-make comes out.

To Rome with Love
In my review of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris last year, I speculated whether the movie’s lively last third was a portent of a filmmaker who might just be regaining the mojo he had in his often terrific 1970s and 1980s movies. I was skeptical, however, that this would indeed turn out to be the case since the only other worthwhile Allen movie from the last 20 years, besides Midnight in Paris, was Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Otherwise all his output during that period was stale and forgettable, made by someone who was only going through the motions and not really committed to making good, appealing films like he used to. (Don’t get me started on how they were rarely as funny or as gripping as Sleeper, Annie Hall, Crimes and Misdemeanors or Husbands and Wives.) Well, with his latest flick,To Rome with Love, which is a pretty indifferent title, we're back to Allen’s mediocre shtick but one that's even duller and more incoherent than usual, if you can believe it.

Allen stars in this one as Jerry, a retired agent enroute to Rome with his wife Phyllis (a wan Judy Davis) to meet their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill) and her Italian boyfriend Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) There he discovers that the man’s father Giancarlo (Fabio Armilato), a mortician, has an amazing operatic voice but one that only sounds good while he’s singing in the shower, a fact which will have to be taken into account in the performer’s hoped for worldwide success. (Shades of the classic animated cartoon One Froggy Evening but not nearly as enticing.) Meanwhile young would-be American architect Jack (The Social Network's Jesse Eisenberg) comes across another more commercially minded, older architect and fellow countryman John (Alec Baldwin) who may or may not be a ghost, but doesn't listen to him when warned off his girlfriend's Sally (Great Gerwig)’s best friend Monica (Ellen Page), who is visiting the pair and might be intent on seducing the hapless Jack.

Two other Italian stories also weave their way through To Rome with Love. In one Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) plays Leopoldo, an ordinary man who becomes a sought after celebrity since everyone has to become famous, as per Andy Warhol’s dictum, for five minutes. And in the films’ sole likeable and enjoyable storyline, a young newly married couple, Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi) find themselves in trouble in Italy’s capital when she gets lost while out on an errand and, he, through a contrivance has to pass off sexy call girl Anna (Penelope Cruz) as his wife.

The characters in To Rome with Love bump up against each other on occasion but their respective adventures only exist, supposedly, to show off Rome as the wondrous city of lovers it obviously is. The problem is Allen’s predictable, unfunny and mostly lackadaisical plotlines don’t do anything but show off the architectural aspects of Rome and rarely allow it to come to anything but picture postcard life. And Allen’s appearance in the film is distracting, since he delivers his lines as if bored by them; it doesn’t help that his so-called zingers would have been rejected by him during his creative zenith as substandard, flat jokes. He pretty much also wastes his talented cast who, as is often the case in an Allen production, are given little meaty to chew on. (Baldwin and the obnoxious Benigni, though, are flat out bad, though in Baldwin’s case, stuck as he is with an ineptly directed magic realistic persona, he likely couldn’t do much with the part.) Only Tiberi and Mastronardi, maybe because I’ve never seen them before, keep you watching. They’re fresh faces and they – along with Cruz – make their slapstick adventures at last partially enjoyable to watch. Mostly, To Rome with Love fails to build up any head of comedic steam and, finally doesn’t amount to much besides. It may not be Allen’s worst film but it’s certainly his laziest, most unimaginative one.

Robert Pattinson and Sarah Gadon in Cosmopolis
I came across a recent Internet comment which labeled Canadian director David Cronenberg's latest movie Cosmopolis as inert. That was apt as that word could very well define the film. But it's only one of many problems in a movie that utterly fails to engage the viewer in any way.

Based on Don DeLillo's 2003 novel of the same name, Cosmopolis takes place over one day as New York financial wunderkind Eric Packer (Twilight's Robert Pattinson) tries to make his way across Manhattan to get a haircut. Along the way, he has to deal with the gridlock created by the American President's visit to New York, a possible plot to kill Packer, anarchists bent on disrupting the streets of the city, former lovers and his wife who pop into his stretch limo whenever it makes a pit stop, his health issues, and international financial negotiations revolving around the value of the Chinese yuan, which may impact on his vast fortune. Packer himself is jaded and devoid of feelings or so he tells himself and Cosmopolis exposes the dark night of his soul, writ large and laced with all manner of philosophical musings about life, love, and the possible meaning or lack of meaning of it all. None of this is dumb – Cronenberg, who also wrote the screenplay, is not a stupid fillmmaker – but the movie never adds up to anything profound or lasting. (Cosmopolis also contains echoes, thematic and stylistic, of previous Cronenberg pictures such as Videodrome and Naked Lunch but they only serve to remind you that those films were better ones or, in the case of Naked Lunch, at least more creatively arresting.)

It's a talky flick which wouldn't be an issue except Pattinson, an uncharismatic and bland actor, can't make DeLillo's provocative musings sing. (If he could have, Cosmopolis might have some zing to it.) I was more impressed with the actor's memorization of the dialogue than with how he delivered any of it. But the movie is also deathly static and for that one can blame Cronenberg. The tone of Cosmopolis is consistently somnambulistic and overly muted, which is an odd way to render such an energetic, frenetic city as New York. But the movie, a Canadian/European co- production was actually, for funding reasons, shot in Toronto and therein lies the problem. I live in Toronto and have been to New York many times and the two cities couldn't be more different. Simply put, Cosmopolis seems like a quiet Toronto movie even if the Canadian city is well disguised as the American metropolis. Defenders of Cosmopolis might point out that the film is deliberately laid back as Packer isn't interested in his surroundings, only with whomever he is interacting, but  it doesn't alter or make acceptable the film's dynamic. It's a New York tale set in a movie that never feels like New York.

Cosmopolis is also undone by some of the worst acting to ever affllict a Cronenberg film and he can be good with actors. It's all the more dismaying in that the director, after a few duds (A History of Violence, Eastern Promises) was coming off the well-acted, intelligently witty A Dangerous Method. That movie, which examined the competitive relationship of psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and the patient who came between them, boasted excellent performance by Viggo Mortenson, Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley and a tale that was, perhaps, fractured  –  it never meshed its two strands together  –  but always compelling and fun. There's nothing amusing about Cosmopolis nor in the wretched perfomances given by the skilled likes of Juliette Binoche, Mathieu Amalric, Samantha Morton, and Paul Giamatti, all but Giamatti appearing in what amounts to extended cameos. Their awful acting here is further evidence that Cronenberg dropped the ball with this dull movie.

No doubt, DeLillo's book might be an effective read, but in its translation to film, any reason for making the movie or having us care a whit about anything going on inside its frames has vanished in the ether. Cosmopolis is that self-effacing a movie. It'll leave your mind as soon as you exit the cinema.

Hope Springs
Finally, David Frankel’s Hope Springs begins as a surprisingly frank look at a couple’s lack of intimacy but squanders that with a happy ending that has to be one of the most abrupt, least-earned conclusions in the history of American cinema. When Kay Soames (Meryl Streep), after 31 years of marriage, informs her negligent husband Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) that she wants the pair to go to couple’s counselling clinic in Maine, because their marriage has become sexless and stale, he reacts with anger. He doesn’t think there’s a problem, he insists, but he gives in to her blandishments ands soon enough, the couple are meeting with relationship expert Dr., Bernie Feld (Steve Carrell) and slowly, painfully discovering that their problems run very deep and won’t be easily ameliorated. Well, at least that’s what the movie starts out saying. Dr. Feld pushes Kay and Arnold to become more intimate, including in their language, touch each other, talk about their sexual fantasies and, finally rekindle their sexual activity and, presumably, their sexual desire for each other. But – SPOILERS FOLLOW – skeptical, defensive Arnold has a mental block about all this and at the penultimate moment fails to consummate his love for Kay. Now she has to reconsider whether she wants to stay marred to him at all.

It’s certainly rare these days for American movies to actually deal with adult issues like this, and Jones and Streep (once she settles into her character) are terrific in their roles. Streep really should play ordinary people more often instead of essaying impersonations of famous folk. (Carrell plays it perfectly straight, and while he’s believable in the role, it’s not what makes him such an appealing actor. We need quirkiness from him and we don’t get that in this film.) But the movie, written by Vanessa Taylor, doesn’t know where it wants to go or, more likely, displays a colossal failure of nerve. So the Soames’ difficulties are resolved simply because Arnold decides, through sheer force of will, to surmount his intimacy issues and simply regain the passion he once felt for his wife. Yes it’s that easy. Would that it was so in real life – therapists would be out of work – but it’s not and Hope Springs attempts to convince us otherwise. It doesn’t work one iota. I actually thought the film had quickly skipped a reel when everything worked out perfectly for all concerned. It’s not that a happy ending would have been farfetched – I always believed Kay and Arnold really loved each other and ultimately could make their marriage succeed – but not in the way it unfolds here. Hope Springs could have been a real emotional breakthrough but, alas, it turns into another Hollywood cop-out.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be doing a course on film censorship in the fall.

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