What I Remember of the Films I’ve Seen : Hero, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Vanity Fair, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Motorcycle Diaries, Kilometer Zero, Stage Beauty, Kinsey, Alexander, and more
End of the Year Round-up, of Sorts
Films come and come; and do so quickly enough that it’s hard to know if any of them are of much importance—before a decent, public conversation can occur, they’re gone. The great thing about so many films is that they form a banquet of colors, moods, philosophies, sensations, and situations—possibilities. There are times when the possibility of change is the only thing that makes life bearable—and some of us change because of the ideas and feelings we encounter, but some of us can only change when the environment in which we move changes and forces change upon us. We can exist as frozen selves, frozen possibilities, and come to think of the frost as a kind of glamour, and the chill as the ultimate cool, and the ice as being as valuable as water, though we cannot drink ice. Films allow us to feel mutable, as they move above and below our usual sense of what we are, melting the ice. I recall the rage in the face of someone who hated my enthusiasm for such art as it was an obvious desire for freedom, a refusal of his sense of what I should be: I refused to live his life or fight his battle and pretend it was my own. I do not think we’re in a great period for film, and yet I see many films and am as glad for them as I am glad for anything on earth. There are films that I liked but have not had much chance to comment on. In the order of their viewing, they are: Hero, We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Vanity Fair, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, The Motorcycle Diaries, Kilometer Zero, Stage Beauty, Kinsey, Ray, Alfie, Birth, Alexander, and Closer.
Hero, directed by Zhang Yimou, is an art object, created with a great deal of color and style, so much so that it’s amazing its actors, principally Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung, are able to maintain their potent charisma. Leung smolders in a way that seems connected to both anger and eroticism, and Cheung’s almost glacial calm—she seems aristocratic, self-possessed, and wise—can suddenly give way to unhinged passion. Those actors, with Jet Li, act as beautiful, dangerous assassins who would like to kill the King of Qin who wants to unify the lands that would become China. Jet Li’s warrior makes his way to the king’s court with stories of how he defeated other assassins: each story allows him to come closer to where the king sits, and that closeness signifies intimacy for the warrior and vulnerability for the king. There are a lot of impressive feats in the film, which we see as Jet Li’s warrior tells his tales and the king questions him—flights through the air, sword play, and unsurpassed production design and cinematography, but I was surprised that the film was not more engaging or satisfying. One admires it, rather than loves it. This film may be Chinese history transformed into a myth of the noble purpose and brutal sacrifice that creating a nation requires, but it is also a romance of violence and that last is not unique at all. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, directed by Kerry Conran, is another film in which the technique of film making—with so much of the film shot in front of a blue screen and filled in later with computers—is as remarkable as the actors’ performances or the story being told. Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, a very attractive couple who argue with, charm, use, and worry about each other in a way similar to that of screen couples of old, are a fighter pilot and a journalist who investigate the disappearance of the world’s scientists. They uncover a plot to take over the world with all sorts of machines. Angelina Jolie as an airbase commander, and Giovanni Ribisi as Law’s assistant, a technical inventor, are also in the cast. Law and Ribisi bring something different to their action roles—Law is brave, chivalrous, funny, intuitive, and Ribisi is driven and a little fearful but resourceful in his practicality. (There is, for me, an element of torment in Ribisi’s profile—a sensitivity to the point of suffering, though that element is less prominent in Sky Captain than in other films I can think of—Boiler Room, The Gift.) Some of the details in the film were very impressive to me, as when Law and Paltrow’s characters visit a scientist and see in his lab a live miniature elephant and then see the scientist nearby, dead. The scientist’s lab and office details are fine, and very believable. There were a few times, however, when the lack of tactile detail elsewhere, the broadness or general nature of the look, made me think overtly of how the film was made (and of cartoons), and that’s not really a good thing: the valued suspension of disbelief is threatened. However, I found Sky Captain entertaining and left the theater thinking about how much I like all the principal actors in it. One reservation I had is that, as with Hellboy (which also references the first half of the twentieth century), I was a little uncomfortable with the presentation of a villain who is both Asian and inhuman. I understand how the Japanese participation in World War II and the 1949 Chinese communist revolution have influenced such images but I do not like these images. (Hero offers a myth in which Chinese warriors are more than human: are these two sides of the same coin?) I must say that while watching Hero and Sky Captain, I did not believe I was seeing the future of film (these do not feel like new experiences). Rather, they utilize the technical resources of the present to recall the past to us.
The past was on display in Vanity Fair and Stage Beauty. Apparently, a lot of film reviewers read Thackeray’s long novel Vanity Fair, the book director Mira Nair interprets; and I did not. The story of the rise of Becky Sharp, whose father was a painter and mother an opera singer, gives us the opportunity to see something of the stratification of society—hostility toward people without money, the vulnerability of sudden changes in fortune and how unforgiving one’s former rich associates can be—and how opportunities for friendship and love are affected by money. The nasty comments made to Reese Witherspoon’s Becky, for which she must sit still, make one think about the things left out of Merchant-Ivory costume pictures (but not left out of the texts of Wharton, James, Forster, Austen and others). Witherspoon is likeable, but it would have been more useful to show her drive to advance—a drive which, inevitably, has some coldness and calculation to it. Her scenes with James Purefoy, who plays a disinherited rich boy who has become her husband, produce some of the strongest emotion in the film. One is convinced of their significant love, of their erotic attraction and concern for each other, something I’m told that Thackeray did not intend. When Witherspoon’s Becky tells Purefoy’s Rawdon Crawley that she has loved him in her own way, I knew that something had been left out or changed in the film, as her way seemed fairly fine. (Several writers worked on the screenplay, Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk, and Mark Skeet.) Some of the most compelling aspects of the film are its settings—scenes filmed outside that show a living world, the push and pull, sweat and dirt, of people. I like Mira Nair’s inclination toward spectacle, both western and eastern (it’s a film of luxurious settings), vulgar and ahistorical as some of it may be. I was glad I saw Vanity Fair, but I was not as surprised by its scenario or as enthralled by its effect as I was by Stage Beauty, a film that probably could not, or would not, have been made even twenty years ago. While women—Garbo in Queen Christina, Katherine Hepburn in Christopher Strong, as well as more recent period pieces such as Yentl, The Ballad of Little Jo, among others—were able to wear men’s clothing, and inspire scenarios and discussions that highlighted the differences in gender and their social meanings, men have been less likely to do so with approval, understanding, or respect. Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game may have been a turning point, though more significant has been the fact that more ordinary citizens are likely to be informed about and discuss gender and sexual identity. The ambiguity and confusions as well as the meaning and power that are associated with various gender issues are more recognizable. I’m rather not fond of men in dresses but it is important to note the limits on our liberties, even those liberties that some of us have no interest in exercising. In Stage Beauty, Billy Crudup plays Ned Kynaston, an actor who specializes in women’s roles, and Claire Danes is his dresser, who is infatuated with Kynaston and the stage. Kynaston sees playing a woman as requiring more craft, and greater self-control, than playing a man. He has been trained in stylized gestures—symbolic movements—that with his looks combine to make him an attractive idea of a woman on stage. I have seen Billy Crudup in other films (Hi-Lo Country, Almost Famous, Big Fish), but he’s never been more interesting to watch than he is in Stage Beauty. Billy Crudup’s Ned Kynaston is a handsome, talented, arrogant man, intelligent, bitchy, and ultimately doing himself harm (he’s playing a star, and has never been more shining). Claire Danes has always been almost frighteningly emotional; and she is as emotional here. She can seem overwhelmed by her own feelings, not simply intense but deformed by anxiety and hurt—but Danes is also more beautiful, more complex, more suggestive than she has ever been before. The actors are alive to each other on the screen; and the film seems an embodiment of genuine feeling. The story they tell in this film, written by Jeffrey Hatcher and directed by Richard Eyre, with cinematography by Andrew Dunn, is uncommon. It is about ambiguities that exist within and between men and women, facts and truths that cannot be labeled simply good, though their existence may be celebrated, nor evil, though their impact may be feared. The king of England (Rupert Everett) is a character in the film, and makes decisions that change tradition and lives; and he embodies both history and power—he is careless and determined, oblivious and shrewd. When the king decides that women can appear on the stage, one person falls and another rises; and they both ask, who, and what, am I?
We Don’t Live Here Anymore, directed by John Curran, is about the suffering that sex can inspire, whereas Kilometer Zero, directed by Juan Luis Iborra and Yolanda Garcia Serrano, is about the anticipated and real pleasure of sex. In We Don’t Live Laura Dern is a housewife and mother—she is married to her husband and her house—and she is overwhelmed by the demands on her time, the need to manage so much. She is loving and well-intentioned, but that is, somehow, not enough; and her husband, boyish, sensual, selfish, whiny, is played by Mark Ruffalo, who in the film is having an affair with her pretty, sneaky (and pretty sneaky) best friend, played by Naomi Watts. Watts’ husband, a professor and writer, is played by Peter Krause as a serial seducer—self-absorbed, permissive, a real anal opening. The main activity of the film—though sex, jogging, drinking, and driving occur—is conversation; and the characters are hurt and healed by what they say to each other. I liked the film, especially Ruffalo and Watts (I thought all the performances were good), but I felt as if I had seen this film before and more than once—and consequently there was something just a bit dull about it. In the 1950s or even the 1960s the film (written by Larry Gross, based on Andre Dubus’ fiction), would have been felt as more disturbing, more important: now, we are used to sexual hunger and bad marriages, at least in our minds. Very different is Kilometer Zero, a sexual comedy of confused identities and conflicting motives. It is sometimes sophisticated but more often silly (a raunchy silliness). Various couples, heterosexual and homosexual, have corresponded via phone or email and made dates to meet at a central location in Spain; and each ends up going off with the wrong person. The spirit of actor Miguel Garcia -avid, direct, intelligent, sensual, and shameless—is charming; and, really, his is the spirit of the film.
Motorcycle Diaries, with Gael Garcia Bernal as the medical student and future revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara, Kinsey with Liam Neeson as the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, and Ray with Jamie Foxx as musician Ray Charles are three of the better biographical films I’ve seen. Motorcycle Diaries, a story about an actual road trip two friends made through South America, is a collection of scenes with a beauty that inspires words that one does not usually speak—a beauty that is absolutely fine, exquisite, glorious, magnificent, pristine. The director is Walter Salles, and the cinematographer is Eric Gautier, both doing work they can be proud of until they take their dying breaths. (The screenplay is by Jose Rivera, based on books by Guevara and his friend Alberto Granado.) I was disappointed by Bernal’s quietly thoughtful performance as Guevara, especially in comparison with Rodrigo de la Serna’s too easily captivating performance as his fun-loving doctor friend Alberto Granado. I suspect that in life I’d be irritated by Granado/Serna’s gregariousness and would like Guevara’s intelligence and integrity, which result in restraint and sensitivity—awareness, responsiveness. We see Guevara’s relationship with a wealthy young woman whose parents disapprove of him, and his encounter with desperate mining workers and also lepers. The poor are always with us, but we do not always see them and when we do we can affirm our own status or their humanity: Guevara, who once held the prejudices of his time, chose to recognize their humanity and he allowed himself to be changed by that recognition. He also recognized the history and language that connected South Americans. His later years—and what he did to redress wrongs—are controversial; and yet many people manage to celebrate European and American ancestors despite the thefts and murders they committed to acquire property, wealth, and power. In the film, however, it is the personality of Granado/Serna that best embodies joyful life—he is appetite, energy, and immediacy. Alfred Kinsey and his wife and co-researcher Clara McMillen would appear to have been conservative but their work and lives had elements of wildness. They were important as researchers and thinkers, countering sexual ignorance and a destructive moral puritanism with facts and stories about what Americans really did for sex; and Bill Condon’s Kinsey is intelligent without being rhetorical, respectful without being hagiography, explicit without being prurient, and hopeful without being sentimental. Condon wrote it; and his production designer is Richard Sherman, cinematographer Frederick Elmes, and editor Virginia Katz. Alfred Kinsey is acted by Liam Neeson in the film, and Clara McMillen by Laura Linney. I have never liked Liam Neeson more easily or warmly—he projects personal decency and scholarly passion, with traces of both innocence and practicality. Laura Linney’s (Clara’s) most moving scene is when she is hurt by her husband’s affair, and her funniest scene is when she speaks her own willingness to have an affair. (I did think, however, that Peter Sarsgaard as Kinsey’s assistant should have kept his pants on—though his nudity shows the actual aspects of the male body and the reality of sex, things we are more familiar with as public exhibitions than in Kinsey’s time. I thought also that Neeson’s kissing of Sarsgaard was too forceful, too dominating between men who are friends becoming lovers, unless the idea was to convey a long-held passion finally released. That men can desire both women and men is some of the news Kinsey delivered; and it is still news that causes curses, gasps, leers, and whispers in a world in which caricature and cliché are often more believed than character and conviction.) The film, attractive but not of a blinding brilliance, and engaging though not exciting, is about important work and the personalities and lives that brought forth that work and how the work affected a culture. All in all, I have not seen very many films that surpass it in the last year: and for weeks after seeing it I felt as if I had been emboldened, enlarged, and enlightened. When I saw Ray soon after, I found Ray more emotionally affecting (there were tears in my eyes for much of the second half of Ray, thanks mostly to Sharon Warren, Regina King, and Kerry Washington as mother, lover, and wife). I love Ray Charles’s music, and Ray, directed by Taylor Hackford, seemed vivid to me—but two days after seeing Ray its memory was vague. Even while watching the film, I did not like the emphatic use of the childhood death of Charles’s brother. Nor that I did not know much about what Charles thought and felt about things other than music, money, or women (he was a great musician, a shrewd businessman, and sexually voracious). There are some people who might say that is all there was to the man, but I doubt that is true, though I know that his music was the best of him as art is usually the best of most artists. I really think this kind of omission is more likely to occur in the treatment of African-American lives than in other lives. (That is partly because few people, black or white, imagine the inner lives of blacks; and blacks too often see political ideology and religious belief as the only significant forms of consciousness, and confuse large, loud gestures for personality, and others come not to expect more than these attributes.) Possibly Ray Charles’s autobiography, which I have not read, offers more than the film Ray—I hope so. I think Jamie Foxx’s performance as Ray Charles is impressive—he has the look and mannerisms and fills in the part. I cannot imagine anyone being better as Charles; and yet I miss the joy I perceived in Ray Charles when I heard him speak or saw his televised performances. I don’t think Charles was particularly sweet—he was more like apple vinegar, or rum, a unique and lingering flavor—but his joy was an ecstasy.
Alfie, a fiction, is about a seducer—and Jude Law as Alfie goes through women played by Marisa Tomei, Susan Sarandon, Nia Long, and Sienna Miller (talk about hard work). He is the host of the party and its main guest, tasting all the delicacies, only to wake the next day with a sour taste in his mouth, an upset stomach, and regrettable memories; and we (yes, I) observe this with amusement. The film, directed by Charles Shyer, is well made; and I liked the performances, and the story’s unfolding about how Alfie comes to see the limits of his life, and the music, with songs by Mick Jagger and Dave Stewart. Alfie reminds me of Closer, a cool, stylish film about couples who come together, fall apart, change partners, and reform, not least as Closer features Jude Law, more worldly and more simply worried and vulnerable than in Alfie. Closer, written by Patrick Marber and directed by Mike Nichols, also features Clive Owen, who plays a bruiser, Larry—and he bruises the characters played by Law (Dan) and Julia Roberts (Anna). Larry is a doctor who (emotionally) injures, a man who asks for truths and then when told refuses to respect them, and he tries to do the same with Natalie Portman’s Alice. Alice at first seems the most fragile of the characters, though her response to Owen’s Larry gives us insight into her resilience.
In Birth, starring Nicole Kidman, Cameron Bright, Danny Huston, and Lauren Bacall, Nicole Kidman plays a woman who still mourns her husband’s death ten years later (not resilient), and she meets a boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. Reincarnation has a certain philosophical appeal—that nothing should be lost, and that primal energy or spirit does not disappear; and it also has a sentimental appeal—a refusal to accept death, a belief that one might meet the beloved again. The idea can be profound or trivial; and Birth, a respectable though unsatisfying film, is in search of something serious but we don’t really see what Kidman’s character likes about the boy. The boy is a mystery; and near the film’s end part of that mystery (his knowledge of her life) is explained. One also wonders about the central figure’s relationship to her dead husband; she seems to have loved him more than he loved her (and here seems is more than objectivity or politeness, as the film has atmosphere and tone in excess of idea and exploration). The film, written by Jean-Claude Carriere and Milo Addica with its director Jonathan Glazer (cinematographer: Harris Savides), is a film about emotion, not logic or even fact; and Kidman’s last scene has a greater value than the price of admission.
As with Motorcycle Diaries, Alexander is a film that requires more explication than I am going to give. Its historical detail is impressive, as is its willingness to be strange (we seem to expect all people in all times to reflect who we are—like bad lovers, we want to bring them closer to ourselves rather than do the work of getting closer to them).
Alexander, a boy-king, a philosopher-king, a queer-king, and a tyrant-king, was ambitious, bisexual, courageous, disciplined, heroic, impulsive, and relentless, and with nations as his toys, he was very different from you and me and that is what director Oliver Stone shows us. Colin Farrell exudes a reckless freedom offscreen, and his performance as Alexander is an uneven but mostly strong one though he is not an ideal Alexander (he is neither beautiful nor bold enough). It would be illuminating to see more of Alexander’s early discipline and genius for strategy. Val Kilmer, and Angelina Jolie (exotically beautiful, sensual, temperamental: a screen goddess), as his volatile parents are much better, and Jared Leto as Hephaistion deserves more screen time. (Rosario Dawson as Alexander’s barbarian princess wife beats Hephaistion’s time, at least briefly, in a breast-baring, knife-wielding sex scene that can be viewed as erotic or hilarious or both.) We do not know enough, despite some lyrical suggestions, about the relationship between Hephaistion and Alexander, these childhood friends, philosophy students, warrior comrades, and lovers. While there is much to be admired in the film, such as the costumes, and pansexual erotic atmosphere, and the movement over vast distances and time, the film lacks grace. (Though we do not see the smart, dedicated, risk-taking Oliver Stone in the film, while watching the film I think of him as heavy-breathing and potentially clumsy—I sense his effort.) I did not like Anthony Hopkins’s narrator, nor the dancer (he’s not an actor) who played Bagoas, the eunuch the king loved, a person I always imagined to be androgynous, pretty, and young, as he’s been described, rather than the stiff, kohl-eyed male presence here. Who was Alexander, and why was he as he was? (He wonders, in the film, if he is divine or weak.) The film offers suggestions—his love for and defiance of his parents, his curiosity and insecurity, his intention to bring the world together—but the answer may be as ungraspable for Alexander as it is for most people who are not artists or intellectuals. It is often artists and intellectuals who are most aware of who and what they and we are, and why; and it is their telling that is our comfort or disturbance.