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August 5, 2009 10:41 pm
Love and death: can’t live with them, can’t live without them. They are both a heap of trouble; they are also the purpose-giving forces or focal points of existence, and the main motifs of art and mythology.
But something funny is happening to them in modern pop culture. Love, at least in screen romcoms (see The Ugly Truth below), is getting airbrushed into inanity. Death, in those proliferating action movies based on computer games or toys (see G.I. Joe, from the same merchandising elves who brought you Transformers), is getting digitised and desensitised – interchangeable words in screen culture – into a hurt-free maelstrom of mayhem.
Meanwhile Mesrine, a truth-based French thriller in two parts (Mesrine: Public Enemy No 1 opens in the UK in three weeks), is like a blast of squalor from Reality Alley. You can almost smell the cats, the bins, the drains. The “hero”, played with a combination of pungent malevolence and outlaw rectitude by Vincent Cassel, is the late real-life hoodlum who robbed banks, roughed up victims, escaped jails, betrayed women, eliminated rivals – and then wrote a book about it all. Like the film, Cassel’s Jacques Mesrine is pieced together from gritty shards of believability, a street-real mosaic no one tries to smooth and polish. For that reason he and it have the sharp edges and septic menace of life.
Around him are the fat godfather, his sweat-dewed features glistening like a slug’s (Gérard Depardieu, magisterial), the pimps and drug dealers running recreation rackets, the cops running too slow to catch them, and the innocents dragged into the daily crossfire. It isn’t pretty. But since too much of what shouldn’t be pretty in modern cinema is, we give thanks for coarseness, candour and play-it-as-it-is cruelty.
Though hurrahed in France, where director Jean-François Richet has been greeted as Gaul’s answer to Hollywood’s triple-name rival Francis Ford Coppola, Mesrine is not The Godfather. Nor is its second part The Godfather Part II . Richet may seem to invite the comparison early on: the lemon-and-charcoal lighting, the legacies of lawlessness handed down between generations, the way evil-doing spreads like a stain – once espoused as a career – from the crime streets to the domestic life.
But the French film is more comfortable when it flees grand statements into the by-alleys of hypnotic subplotting. One moment the brutal abduction of a hapless millionaire; the next the deranged heroism of Mesrine’s raid on a prison to break out cronies, a Pyrrhic catastrophe of blood and bullets. (Another leap, across time and ocean, has us goggling at the caption, “Arizona 1969”, a prelude to the protagonist’s North American period.) Nothing stays still. No one has time to have his portrait painted, let alone his warts airbrushed, in Mesrine. But while there is restlessness there is life, and as for meaning, that must evolve, as always, in the mind of the onlooker.
Nothing stays still in G.I. Joe either. But there is an inertia born of ceaseless, stupefying animation. Various brainy spectators at the preview – those under 12 – appeared to understand the plot. The film critic fraternity was left for half-dead, groping for enlightenment amid the crashing man-monsters, sizzling military hardware, galumphing battles and “human” characters cleansed of idiom or irregularity. There is no character here we could call flesh-and-blood: not Sienna Miller, a moving centrefold wired for vocal technobabble; not even Jonathan Pryce, US President, whose best line follows the film’s best scenic eyeful. When the Eiffel Tower keels over and collapses, the man in the Oval Office mutters concernedly to his aide: “The French will be upset.”
The Ugly Truth – let’s hurry past this one – has Katherine Heigl as a television producer, the actress’s natural charm so scourged of imperfection that she resembles an interstellar Barbie doll, romancing television shock jock Gerard Butler. He is the film’s token bit of scruff. In the age of neurotic screen hygiene each film must have an anti-Messiah who takes on the dirt of all. Elsewhere, wit-free dialogue combines with dust-free scenery and foible-free characters.
So you have to love – just a little – the documentary The Yes Men Fix the World, filmed by and featuring two actual shock merchants. Tying last-minute ties, combing last-minute hair, memorising scripted flim-flam, Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are two crusading serial impostors who gatecrash business conferences. Masquerading as industry bigwigs – Exxon execs or Dow Chemical spokesmen – they deliver blows to the corporate solar plexus: an announced plan by Dow (foster parents to Union Carbide) to spend $12bn remunerating Bhopal victims, an Exxon pledge to clean up everything everywhere.
It is exhilarating, sometimes hysterical – unless you are from Dow or Exxon, or indeed Bhopal, where victims were brutalised by a morning of false hope before newspaper exposures restored disenchantment. The film, though brave, gonzo and often funny, raises the bar on the debate provoked by Michael Moore and Sacha Baron Cohen. How cruel does satire have to be – to innocent and guilty alike – to accomplish its missions?
If you wake one night to find your adopted daughter standing over you with a knife or hammer, the best advice – act fast – is to dial “HHH” (Hollywood Horror Helpline). Here an operative will swiftly explain the order of ensuing scenes. Usually: you run into the snow, adopted daughter follows brandishing weapon, screaming fight is followed by arrival of screeching cop cars. Other possibilities – some explored in Orphan – are ice-cracking ponds and ghoulish gauntlets of grand guignol in the fruit cellar. That director Jaume Collet-Serra made House of Wax, the Paris Hilton remake, does not bode well. But stars Vera Farmiga and Peter Saarsgard, as mum and dad, find a few frail pegs of humanity to hang their characters on, and the eerily precocious orphan (Isabelle Fuhrman) is out of The Omen by way of Jude the Obscure.
The title hero of Adam is a young New Yorker suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, a variant form of autism. Cynical cinemagoers will say: “Haven’t we done this before in Rain Man?” Can any actor add anything new, even if behaviourally more accurate, to Dustin Hoffman’s performance? Hugh Dancy does the stammer, the averted eyes, the dorky sweaters and the sweetness of nature. But it is both too studied and not studied enough, like a first exercise in an acting class. Rose Byrne is the pretty girl falling for him while not sure she should. Everyone dallies and dithers and radiates well-meaningly. This is mental illness served up for romcom pathos and sentimentality.
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