Picks: Average Fare
The Man Without a Past, dir. Aki Kaurismäki (Finland, 2002). At first the film worked for me, primarily because of its weirdness, its mystery, its subtlety of characterization. But after the first half of the film I felt dispirited because the early strength of the film—its weirdness of character and behavior, became stylized and artificial. Before long I felt “put upon”—that is, manipulated, by the slow pace and lack of tension. As the film begins a man gets off the train and is robbed and beaten, and he has a hard time persuading people that he has lost his memory. The director creates a landscape of poverty—people live not in a trailer down by the river, but in containers (from container ships) near the docks. Homeless people and other street people are everywhere. But nothing is revealed, at least thematically, about the plight of the homeless. They simply exist, and although they are often a bit weird and twisted, they are not much different from other urban or suburban dwellers. Then there is the main plot point—our main character meets a woman who works for the local Salvation Army outfit, and there is love in the air. He is a dour man; she is a plain woman. No one smiles in the film. Many of the shots run long—a conventional approach these days in cinema—and yet the editing is often clever and compelling. Life goes on. Not much really happens to these folks. Soon he is working for the Salvation Army. Reaction shots do not dominate in the film. The style is simple and straightforward. Now the men working for the Salvation Army begin to play rock and roll rather than spiritual songs. The woman in charge of this chapter of the Salvation Army, a former torch singer, resumes her old habits and sings for the group. Finally, we learn what happened to the man. All is anticlimactic. There was a wife; the wife has a new lover. What does it matter? The man without a name now has a name. But he prefers the new ways, the simple ways of existence—so he returns to the docks and resumes his new life. Something was missing from this film—and I would define it as sufficient tension to help viewers relate to, root for, and feel sympathy for the main characters. I didn’t have those emotions—after the first half of the film—and at that point the style overwhelmed the content. I became a watcher rather than a participant.
Nicholas Nickleby, dir. Douglas McGrath (2002). I was disappointed with this slow-moving adaptation of the Dickens novel. Early in the action I was impressed with the pace; the dire circumstances facing Nicholas, his mother, and his sister; the painful separation of the family; and Nicholas’ horror at being dropped into the monstrous institution that passed for a school. He walks past row after row of straw beds—each of which is filled with a small frightened child, and there seems little hope for him and the other boys, especially because of the abusive headmistress played by Juliet Stevenson. She was deliciously creepy and evil. Her husband (in an over-the-top role by Jim Broadbent) knows nothing about education. Then there is that great friendship between Nicholas and the disabled boy, Smike. “There is no hope,” the boy says, and later he asks Nicholas, “Is the world as bad as this place?” The plot thickens; Smike escapes in order to spare Nicholas, he is brought back by the brutish headmaster and tortured, and then Nicholas attacks the headmaster and escapes with Smike. And therein lies the problem with this film. After that flurry of action, the film bogs down in mediocre and overly sentimentalized melodrama. We see repeated examples of evil perpetrated upon Nicholas by his evil uncle, played unctuously by Christopher Plummer; comic relief by a troupe of actors that befriend Nicholas and Smike; a love interest between Nicholas and a lovely young woman; and all the worse, repeated scenes of pontifications by the ever-virtuous Nicholas. Something was missing from this film. It lacked the dynamism of intriguing secondary characters. Charlie Hunnam, who played Nicholas, was not compelling. Poor Nicholas is assaulted from every direction. Everyone he values is threatened. His sister is almost married off to an evil old man; his best friend Smike is kidnapped and spirited away. Smike becomes that omnipresent Dickens’ character best exemplified by Little Nell—the virtuous character who is too good for this world and whose dying is drawn out as long as the author can get away with it! That dying scene, with Nicholas present, was one of the few jewels in the crown of this film. The double bane of melodrama: when good is too good, and when evil is all evil. Never do we get an insight into the uncle’s need for revenge against Nicholas. Even when the big secret comes out at the end of the film, that revelation is not enough to salvage the slow-moving and uninspiring characters and plot. On this Dickens I’ll take a pass. I would recommend, instead, McGrath’s version of Emma (1996).
Rare Birds, dir. Sturla Gunnarsson (Canada, 2001). The premise of this film: a Newfoundland restaurateur (William Hurt) realizes his business is failing, despite his skills as a chef. His restaurant is located on a remote bay on the island. A local man befriends Hurt. One of this fellows talents—he is building a submarine for the mass market. Now right there one should pause and wonder if this film will be worth it. Submarines are funny—but they're not that funny. Add to the mix that the friend's sister-in-law is a bright, attractive young woman—and guess what will happen next. You're right—a love story. There are two reasons to see this film: (1) You can watch William Hurt give another rendition of his rumpled, down-and-out, sad-sack-loner persona--better utilized in Smoke (1995). Hurt's sense of comic timing and his mastery of the reaction shot are legendary. He is a great actor, but sometimes he is sloppy—in this case he slips in and out of his Newfie accent for no apparent reason. (2) You can discover an actor on the brink of stardom. Molly Parker plays Alice, the sister-in-law of Hurt's best friend, and she veritably glows on screen. She projects a shy, freckled, girl-next-door quality combined with latent sexual energy. Now add a plot twist: the sidekick suggests that the two men come up with a story that a rare duck (not a rare bird!) has been sighted in the bay across from the restaurant. Bird watchers will flock to the site and the restaurant will be saved! I think you get the message: a film like this wants to be a kooky comedy, perhaps in the Local Hero or Waking Ned Divine mold. But it fails because it lacks a sense of place as character (the town and its kooky characters), a hero whose transformation is the focus of the film, and a wise old character that holds the community together. So the film wants to be funny, and sometimes it is—but sometimes it simply doesn't work. The love story between Hurt and Parker is more a lust story. I never believed the relationship. Hurt's kooky sidekick, played well by Andy Jones, is a promising character actor. Despite the goofiness of his character, Jones made the character interesting. This film needed a better script, more inspired direction, and one less plot twist (the one associated with the shenanigans of the sidekick).
dir. Chen Kaige (
Whale Rider, dir. Niki Caro
And there are other simplifications. The girl needs a coach—to learn the ways of Maori males. So the grandmother suggests her uncle. But her uncle is shown using drugs—and just like that, the uncle gets off drugs and begins to work out with the girl. Another simplistic response to what in reality is much more complicated. As I watched the old man, Koro, teach the boys in the town how to be warriors, it occurred to me that he was a lousy teacher. How could he ever find “the one”? Good teachers are gentle but firm, teaching discipline in the context of caring. All right—so let’s cut to the climactic moment. Old Koro decides that “the one” will be determined by a swimming challenge. Whoever swims down to the bottom of the bay and brings up the whale tooth will be “the one.” This is definitely a children’s story, isn’t it? Guess who brings up the whale tooth? Again, this is a children’s film—but not a great one in my estimation. The emotions are too broad—characters are either crying, hugging, yelling, being depressed, feeling alone and alienated—and after a while that becomes tiring. More tears flow when the Grandfather shows up—late, of course (that’s the formula)—at the school performance where the girl gives a monologue about Maori traditions.
Then the film becomes even more sentimental (emotions in excess of the stimuli, that is) when the climactic scene occurs—whales have beached themselves, and the Maori gather to try to pull them back into the bay. How does the girl save the day—after all, she has to save the day. She’s a whale rider, of course! She rides the whale—under water and everything—and she survives. And the whales leave the beach! And the postscript—no more drinking, no more drugs, no more fathers abusing children, no more broken homes. All the men and women are strong, and all the children are good. And I never believed it for a minute. The best thing about the film is the acting of young Keisha Castle-Hughes. She is an extraordinary talent. The camera loves her expressive face and her bright eyes. The enclave of Maoris seems to exist in a world apart from non-Maori society. I suppose this world apart fits right in with the idealized and simplistic world that is portrayed in this film.
What a Girl Wants, dir. Dennie Gordon. I went to see this film because my wife is a fan of Colin Firth. She knew it would be an average film, and I agreed that it would be an average film. But sometimes it’s a good idea to go with the flow and sit next to your wife and hold hands and not make any notes and just try to enjoy a film. For what it was, it was not half bad. One writer on the Internet Data Base claims the film reminded her/him of “The Parent Trap and The Princess Diaries. A perfectly well written story. And perfectly well acted by Amanda Bynes and Colin Firth, and everybody else. If you're in the mood to see a lighthearted movie, you'll love this one.” My response: True about the reference to the two films. Replace the word “perfectly” with the word “adequately.” As to the last sentence in the quote, replace “you’ll love” with “you’ll get by” and you get the right idea. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with condemning a film for being mediocre. It could have been worse. But the film makes no pretensions to being anything but adequate. And it was great to spend two hours holding my wife’s hand.
Average Fare A-L