Picks: Recommended Films
Bad Education, dir. Pedro Almodovar (Spain, 2004). This story of the effects of pedophilia on young men in a Roman Catholic school in Spain never touched me in an intense way—as I had expected when I sat down to watch the film. I think Almodovar was not interested in focusing directly on the emotional traumas of such abuse. Certainly he showed the outcomes of that abuse through the scarred lives of two of the boys from the same school. The screenplay was complex, and it included a compelling ruse—on the part of one of the characters, a bittersweet love story between two of the boys, a fascinating scene where the transsexual main character captures our imaginations, a character that I took to be a version of the director now faced with making a film about his own past, a Roman Catholic priest—as abuser—that is confused by his conduct partly because he so loves the boy he abuses—and the list goes on. There were layers and layers of feelings expressed in a variety of ways by the different characters; but never in the film did I feel involved in the lives of the characters in a compelling way. On some levels I was fascinated with the film as an exercise in screenwriting (and thus, in the structure of filmmaking), but I was only fascinated by the main character when I realized the extent of his ruse in the early section of the film. For a few minutes I was in that world with that character—but then the director pulls back from that, too, and returns to the exercise of thinking through the mysteries of the human heart.
Born into Brothels. Dir. Ross Kauffman & Zana Briski. I was not as impressed with this film as I thought I might be. What bothered me was the too-often used jazzed-up technique of shaky and low-lit shots—all for mood, I expect. This film worked best when it used direct interviews of the children in the Bombay brothels. Those kids had something valuable to say; their characters and their values were front and center. I could have used much more of such footage. The basic story is effectively told. The filmmaker, a young woman, decides to make a documentary about the children born into brothels, and she soon decides to try to help rescue some of these children from the brothels. She employs a smart technique. She engages the children in an educational process. She provides the kids with cameras and gets them involved in classes where they can learn how to become photographers. But soon she begins to focus her work on getting them out of the brothels. The avenue of choice—get them into private boarding schools. Soon, however, she learns that many private schools will not take children of prostitutes. She struggles to find a way to help the children. Throughout the film we see montages of the children’s photographs. They offer powerful testimony to the children’s creativity. But too often the many montages the director employs seem to blend together and become repetitive. Likewise, the moody cinematography and grainy film stock wore on my patience. The core of this film was the question, “Will the director succeed in getting any of these children out of the brothels?” The more we learned about the individual children and the constraints of their daily lives, the more our hearts went out to them. When the children appear at a gallery opening of their photographs in London, the direct cinema scenes of the children being interviewed by the world press was engaging and insightful. Eight children are featured; and one of them is singled out as the most promising photographer. When his mother dies, it becomes evident that her death may actually become a means of freeing him from the control of the brothel family. (How did his mother die? Her pimp set fire to her stove, and she died in the fire.) The boy’s initial response is, “There is nothing called hope in my future.” He sinks into a deep depression. Now we fear that he will be lost to his grief. You see, we live for these kids by this time in the film. We want them to know a better world. We see how unfair it is that their creativity and energy is stifled by their fate. At the end of the film, this boy seems to be making progress, although most of the children have been constrained again by their familial and cultural contexts (and limitations). There is such anguish in seeing how these kids are sucked back into a monolithic system
The Bourne Supremacy. Dir. Paul Greengrass. I knew what to expect when this film began. It would move fast. Matt Damon would be cool but not robotic, superhuman but not an action figure. I knew there would be a fast-paced car chase. I knew there would be psychological editing focused on Bourne's attempt to remember fragments from his past. I knew the film would be a travelogue of sorts-oh, here we are in Moscow, or Berlin, or Naples. I knew there would not be much or any sex in the film. I knew that the bad guy would be one of the good guys-and even if I could not predict his identity beforehand, I would be able to learn over to my wife and say, just before it happened, "You see that guy there? He's a dead man." (That is, the bad guy would kill an innocent good guy.) So it was a romp, a guilty pleasure, a wild ride, energized but not engrossing. I was thrown for a loop by the first plot device-an old one for thrillers. That plot device led to a brief, but heartfelt, dark night of the soul (from grief). But that grief is short-lived-otherwise this film would not be true to its forebears. So our hero gets to work, and then we settle into our chairs and face the fact that this country idolizes characters who are larger than life, who control their environment, who hit harder and run faster and never wax sentimental and don't get involved in emotional entanglements and who melt into the crowd (or head out for the territories) at the end of the film. One of the powerful tricks of this film, cinematically, was the consistent use of what appears to be a handheld camera. That camera use gave the frame just enough unsteadiness to create an edgy, direct cinema look to the action. The camera was much more controlled than that roiling camera employed in Dogma productions. Sometimes it was as steady as rock-but when Bourne was called to action, the handheld look took over. I thought it was a nice touch, and it helped bring the action closer to the viewer and make that action feel more immediate. All of the business of finding out that the evil guy was (an insider, of course), was common fodder for this thriller formula. Matt Damon, however, stands out as a star! He has the moves, the stillness of his body, and the glint in his eye. But that car chase? Sorry, but it was so fragmented with the excessive cutting that I lost a sense of the wholeness of the action. (The French Connection, Bullit, & Ronin are the best car chase films!) One simple question. Late in the film Bourne carries a fake passport. That way nobody can check the real name, right? Then why doesn't he do that earlier in the film? Oh, forget about it!
Collateral. Dir. Michael Mann. This film is a director’s film, much like the better Manchurian Candidate was a director’s film. In this case Mann creates a character (played by Tom Cruise) that is a creature of his environment. He is a denizen of the night, appropriate for the anonymous and amoral world of Los Angeles. Never forget that good films create landscape as character. In this case, the Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise exist as characters only within that landscape. One of my problems with the film is that the Foxx character is rendered too optimistically, too positively. I did not believe most of the interaction between the lawyer and the taxi driver in the opening scene of the film. It was too much “sweetness and light”—an imagined conversation between an average guy and a glamorous dame. After all, despite their shared ethnicity, the two characters come from a different class. But in American films we like to believe that class never divides, that characters can always overcome class. So the classy lawyer gives the taxi-driver-with-a-dream her business card (same as giving him her “number” for a future date.”). I didn’t get it. But I understand that this scene is a kind of conceit. It’s Collateral’s “Rosebud.” I’m supposed to keep quiet and simply accept it because it is a convention of film viewing.
So let’s move on to the relationship between Vincent (Tom Cruise) and Max (Jamie Foxx). Sorry, but I did not believe most of this interaction as well. Why would the killer bother talking to the guy? Why would Vincent be interested in anything the guy had to say? I look at the two characters and I see so much that divides them—including race, class, education, profession, and values. I did enjoy much of the dialogue. I was mesmerized by Cruise’s acting, and I was impressed with what Jamie Foxx was able to deliver in a serious role. I did not think he was close to being ready for the A-list of actors. I never believed the key scene where Max has to persuade thugs he is a hit-man. When Foxx had to hit the high notes of dramatic intensity, I did not see him register sufficient intensity.
What took over in this film was the look and the texture of the cinematography and the scene construction and innovative choices of music. When Vincent leaves to make his first kill, classical music plays. Mann creates tension in scene construction with the best directors. I was on the edge of my seat several times. So I am recommending the film—but with serious reservations. Among them are the following: Vincent’s character became too superhuman by the end of the film. He was a hit-man, not a monster and not a superhero gone bad. The big scene at the night club (with three parallel tracks) was boring because it has been done too many times in too many films. The big night club scene is about as innovative a setting as the big prom scene in teenaged flicks. The climactic scene of the film also was conventional—using three parallel edited tracks (one for each character) and using the plot point of the evil one hunting the good one while the other good one tries to “come to the rescue.” The individuality of Max’s character was never established early in the film—and thus, when he is called upon to stretch himself to unimagined limits, I felt contrivance more than consistency of character. In one late scene, Mann films the police and the Feds all in their official vehicles. Several of the cops are checking their automatic weapons. The scene was slick, and the key image was a wide shot of one of the vehicles—the wheels spinning to montage music set against the darkly lit landscape of Los Angeles. For a moment I thought, “How sexy it is to prepare oneself for violence.” I did not appreciate that visual prompting. I was turned off by the music-video structure of such scenes. All the values are commercial and slick and manipulative. At peak moments of violence in the film, it seemed to me that members of the audience responded with too much visceral delight to that violence—as if the director tapped into the unconscious rage many people feel in this society. How sad when we see people being blown away as “cool.” Here we have a film that looks great, that moves (in most scenes) with economy and grace, has great acting by Tom Cruise, and yet is undermined by an emphasis on surfaces rather than depths of character.
Hotel Rwanda, dir. Terry George (Canada, UK). Don Cheadle did an admirable job as the main character in this film, based upon a true story. I remember when I first heard about the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda by the Hutus. But as engaging as his performance was, I was seldom deeply emotionally involved in the drama in this film. I think the director chose not to emphasize the explicit brutality of this genocide; and yet I think we needed to see hundreds and thousands of men, women, and children hacked to death, or surviving with hacked-off limbs. The horror of these events in the 1990s was that such brutality is at once unimaginable and unrelenting. It happened. People had to imagine what it would be like to use machetes to hack off limbs or to hack people to death. They did not use bombs or machine guns or even single-shot pistols; for God’s sake, they used machetes. What they did was unconscionable in a civilized world—and yet what they did had its antecedents in Auschwitz and in Phnom Penh. I admired the decision to make this film, I admired much of the interaction between Paul (Don Cheadle) and his family, and I appreciated his willingness to use his skills and even his wiles to save so many people. Late in the film he falls down, and when he gets up he realizes that all around him are corpses, left on the side of the road to decompose. But that moment in the film had little affect on me because it pales before the similar moment in The Killing Fields (1984), when Dith Pran stumbles onto one of the many killing fields and finds himself surrounded with thousands, not scores, of victims. I felt this film lacked the magnitude of suffering that it needed to display in order to be believable. I kept watching Don Cheadle’s performance. Although it was a worthy performance, it was a performance. He never became the character because the director did not want to place him within the context of the horrors of the unconscious. In another scene that is derivative of the superior The Killing Fields, all of the whites are able to leave the hotel compound and return to their home countries. Only the Tutsis stay behind—for what appears to be certain death. Don Cheadle stands in the rain, the objective correlative of his tears (and his nation’s shame)—but all I could think of was the scene in The Killing Fields where Sydney Schanberg says good-bye to Dith Pran in the rain—when he and the other whites were allowed to leave the embassy while all the native Cambodians, including Dith Pran, were forced to stay behind. Now that was a scene. Perhaps The Killing Fields was more effective because it focused on the relationship between the two men—and there was nothing to match that in Hotel Rwanda. It seemed a tamer version of the film it could have been. It was worth watching, no doubt, but I will not return to it over and over and linger on key scenes.
Kinsey, dir. Bill Condon. I saw this film twice, and I never really felt I understood Kinsey as a character. I can understand how difficult it is to capture someone as complex as this person. I do not fault Liam Neeson for his performance. As usual, his acting was superb and conveyed subtlety when necessary and broad strokes when required. It is evident that Kinsey had a difficult relationship with his estranged father. Some of the flashbacks are supposed to provide us insight into the workings of that relationship. I was taken by the use of black and white scenes showing Kinsey teaching his graduate students proper interview techniques. Was it accidental that in these scenes he came across like a carbon copy of his marionette father? Was it accidental that one of his students had a small mustache similar to his own father’s style? The coverage of Kinsey’s early years at Indiana University, where he met his wife Mac, seemed formulaic and awkward. But when they settle down, on their marriage night, to have sexual intercourse for the first time, that scene was gripping and imaginative. Strange that the rest of their relationship became simple background to the story of Kinsey’s research efforts. Perhaps if there had been a greater exploration of their particular sexual relationship, then I would have better understand the directions Kinsey explored in his research. There is one quick scene, where a doctor expresses wonder when he finds out the length of Kinsey’s penis. But there is no follow-through. Suddenly their sex life is perfect. I imagine this is the peril of such a biographical undertaking by a filmmaker. The story of Kinsey’s life deserves an eight-hour Masterpiece Theater treatment, but that won’t work in Hollywood. So 2 ½ hours will have to suffice. So much is left out, and so much is compressed. In a similar vein, the scene showing him beginning to teach his sex course at Indiana University is wonderfully inventive and creative—the slides of genitalia are shocking even to today’s audiences. Why didn’t we get more of that class experience? Why can’t we honestly be shocked by the truth of what Kinsey was saying? Why do we hesitate and tremble with fear that something might be shown to us, or that something might be revealed to us, or that someone might confess to something that no one has confessed to before? Kinsey is an enthusiast, and that automatically makes him naïve—as well as a tragic figure. How could he not see that he would bump up against entrenched social attitudes about human sexuality? Perhaps nothing could be done. As in all great tragedies, the thread must be rolled out and the character must follow the path all the way to its end. As Kinsey’s bisexuality was revealed, I kept thinking to myself, “We need more scenes of Kinsey alone. We need to see his evolving realization that his expression of sexuality and intimacy is broader than what he had ever anticipated.” Too often I thought the acting of Laura Linney was wasted as the long-suffering wife of the great researcher. She had a few good scenes, but the film never was about the relationship between Kinsey and his wife—it was about Kinsey’s impact upon society. Is this another case of leaving out more than should be left out? I do not know. But I felt the lack when I watched Laura Linney’s role fail to evolve. Throughout the film seemed to move at a breakneck pace. The scene structure was condensed, fast-paced, and compressed. I wish the film could have slowed down. Give us at least another 30-45 minutes of this man’s life. One of the saddest scenes in the film is when the researchers, including Kinsey, are watching films made of one of the graduate students having sexual intercourse with the wife of another graduate student. But little emphasis was placed on this scene. Kinsey and the others looked terribly uncomfortable, but there was no follow-through, no implications from that scene. The more Kinsey expands his research, the more he seems to lose touch with the mystery of human sexuality. Perhaps the saddest scene is the one where Kinsey and one of the students visits a man that has spent a life recording the details of his sexual history—what he calls his “life’s real work.” But the man knows nothing about intimacy—and it is apparent that he is a flagrant child molester. Kinsey listens to the man’s story because he thinks this man’s sexual history will be of use to science. This bizarre man tells Kinsey, “Recording is a way to experience things a second time.” But this scene passes by in a blur because again there is no follow-through. We have no idea what Kinsey really thinks about this encounter. We never get inside Kinsey’s mind and see what makes him committed to these interactions. Later, as Kinsey begins to lose control of his human sexuality empire, there is the required scene where one of his students blows up and accuses him of missing the point completely—(“Fucking isn’t something—it’s the whole thing!”)—and another student concludes, “We can’t all be as disciplined as you.” The film ends with a tone of melancholy, and the sentimentality invariably begins to drip from the scenes. The ending is a kind of celebration and homage to the misunderstood genius of this man. Memo to filmmakers: pontificating and preaching seldom persuade. Keep it simple, make it real, and show the audience so that it can judge for itself.