When I first saw the trailer to Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace, I groaned. People complain when Oliver Stone or Spike Lee present their own view of history, but they at least are alive to the contradictions of it (well, most of the time). Why isn’t there the same kind of outcry when movies wrap history up in a too-neat package, particularly when dealing with racial history, as if to say, “Yes, it was bad then, but don’t worry, it’s all better now” (and yes, Jerry Bruckheimer (Remember the Titans, Glory Road), I’m looking at you)? I thought this story of William Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffudd), the British lord who, in the late 18th century, pushed to end slavery in Britain, would fall into the same trap. Well, it does and it doesn’t.
Part of what makes the movie push past the usual clichés, including Wilberforce’s romance with Barbara (Romola Garai), an activist who grew up idolizing Wilberforce, and the stilted dialogue, is how writer Steven Knight does capture how the slavery issue was wrapped up in other issues as well as bigotry. Not only did proponents argue slavery had a positive effect on the economy, they also saw it as a way to keep up with France. Also, the backhanded way Wilberforce and his supporters finally managed to pass an anti-slavery law (they banned any merchant ship from flying an American flag, which most slave-trading ships flew) is well handled. Finally, there are a group of actors who make the most of their roles (I’m afraid I found Gruffudd merely functional, along with singer Yossou N’Dour as a former slave). Rufus Sewell, who has mostly being going over the top in villain roles, and rather badly at that, is quite restrained as Thomas Clarkson, an abolitionist who also sees slavery as just one of the ills plaguing British society. Benedict Cumberbatch is likewise restrained and quite good as William Pitt, who became Prime Minister and tried to help Wilberforce. But three old pros take the acting honors here: Bill Paterson as Lord Dundas, who opposed abolition for pragmatic reasons even though he was against slavery, Michael Gambon in his usual wily turn as Lord Charles Fox, who changed from anti-abolition to pro-abolition, and Albert Finney brings gravitas to his performance as John Newton, the former slave ship owner who repented and wrote the song that gives the movie its title. Still, as movies about slaves go, I still think Amistad does a more complex job in its story.
I know almost nothing about Edith Piaf, even though her music has been used in several movies that I like (two quick examples; Audrey Hepburn sings “La Vie en Rose” as Humphrey Bogart is driving her home in the original Sabrina, and Susan Sarandon uses her music in her first night in bed with Tim Robbins in Bull Durham), so I have no way of knowing if Olivier Dahan’s La Vie En Rose, his biopic of Piaf, is accurate. What I can say, unfortunately, is it doesn’t linger in the memory. Certainly, Dahan doesn’t approach this like a traditional biopic; he shifts back and forth between when Piaf was getting sicker (too much alcohol and drug abuse catching up to her), and her early life on the streets until she was discovered and made a star. And he and cinematographer Tetsuo Nagata make this darker than the usual biopic (apparently, Piaf preferred being in the dark most of the time), and move the camera around a lot. But Dahan doesn’t really connect to the material to make it inspiring for us. There are some good moments here and there, as when Piaf (Marion Cotillard) meets Marlene Dietrich (Caroline Sihol), and it turns out Dietrich is a fan, and when Piaf finds out Marcel (Jean-Pierre Martins), the boxer who was the great love of her life, is dead, but they’re isolated from the rest of the movie. Mostly, for all the technique on display, it just feels like a standard biopic. Cotillard has been getting praise for her performance as Piaf, and she certainly captures the shyness, as well as Piaf’s often diva-like behavior. But no one else is allowed to make much of an impression. Even Gerard Depardieu, normally a strong presence in any film, doesn’t get much to do as the nightclub owner who gave Piaf her first big break. I still appreciate Piaf’s music after watching La Vie En Rose, but I don’t feel anything beyond that.
Steven Soderbergh apparently thought he was in a career rut in 1995 when he made The Underneath, which I always thought was his most underrated film. This so-called rut led him to break away from what he thought was his formula for making movies, first with the wildly experimental, and funny, Schizopolis, followed by his concert film Gray’s Anatomy (not to be confused with the TV show, of course, but rather a recording of Spalding Gray), and then his first major studio film, Out of Sight. Soderbergh has always been one of my favorite filmmakers, but in my opinion, he’s in a rut now. After the first Oceans film, which was a terrific entertainment, he’s directed six features (plus a segment from Eros, an anthology film featuring him, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Wong Kar-Wei, which I haven’t seen), two of them Oceans sequels, and only one of which I’ve liked (his underrated remake of Solaris). The fact that his experimental films (Full Frontal, Bubble, The Good German) haven’t quite worked is disappointing, but not dispiriting; at least he’s trying to stretch himself. The problem is those Oceans films. I understand he’s trying to make enough money so he and former producing partner George Clooney can make the films they want to make, but the problem is, both Oceans Twelve and Oceans Thirteen, the latest one, feel like they were made just for the money and nothing else.
The nominal plot of Thirteen is the gang gets together one more time when Willy Bank (Al Pacino), an oily casino owner, squeezes Reuben (Elliot Gould) out of ownership, which leads him to have a heart attack. The rest of the gang decide the best way to get even is to sabotage Bank’s opening of his casino, mainly by having the house lose on every game in the casino. Except for Ellen Barkin as Bank’s field boss, this is strictly a boys club (Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones are alluded to but don’t appear here), and it has the feel of boys not wanting to grow up. It’s not to say this film is irritating. Everyone here knows how to go through their paces, and Clooney, Pitt and Damon et al clearly enjoy each other’s company and the chance to play shady characters. But no one really gets a chance to do much with their roles, not even Pacino. As with most sequels, this clearly comes off as a cash register job. A lot of people hated Oceans Twelve for being too smug and having too many inside jokes, but this enervated, if harmless, movie, comes off as being more smug. Soderbergh is following up with two film biopics of controversial revolutionary Che Guevara. I hope those films allow him to get his groove back.
For whatever reason, Paris has always held a certain romance for storytellers, be it novelists, playwrights, or filmmakers. In Paris, Je T’Aime, twenty-one filmmakers were asked to make a short film set in Paris and about Paris in some way (Emmanuel Benbihy directed the transitions between some of them). Being this is an anthology film, the stories in each of the short films necessarily become less important than the mood they set. Fortunately, most of the segments, aside from being quick, are quite diverting. Of the films, I was most taken with the Coen Brothers’ segment, where Steve Buscemi plays a tourist who learns only too well what not to do in a Parisian subway, Vincenzo Natali’s segment about a young man (Elijah Wood) attacked by a vampire, which is surprisingly romantic, Walter Salles’ wrenching segment about a nanny (Catalina Sandino Moreno) traveling from taking care of her boss’ baby to taking care of her baby, Gerard Depardieu’s bittersweet segment about a couple (frequent co-stars Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands) meeting for the last time to finalize their divorce, and Alexander Payne’s segment (Payne also appears as Oscar Wilde in Wes Craven’s segment about a quarreling couple (Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell)), about an American tourist (Margo Martindale) visiting Paris. It starts off as if Payne is making a smug declaration about American tourists, but it turns into something much deeper. On the whole, this collection is light on its feet, but if like me, you’ve never been there, it still communicates the romance of the city.
Although Shane Meadows’ This is England starts and ends with news footage of what England was like under the rule of Margaret Thatcher, and clearly is meant to show how her government helped create a culture that enabled skinhead groups to flourish, this isn’t a tract. Rather, it’s Meadows’ semi-autobiographical look at how a young boy named Shaun (Thomas Turgoose), who is perpetually picked on and who has a chip on his shoulder about his short stature and his father (who died in the Falklands War), falls under the influence of a group of skinheads. I’ve never seen Meadows’ previous movies (which include Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and A Room for Romeo Brass), but he has a reputation for making films that are sharp in detail and character but rambling and sentimental when it comes to plot. That certainly applies to this film (although the sentiment is toned down), and as far as skinhead films go, it’s certainly no patch on Romper Stomper (the best film about that particular cycle of hate), but it avoids the self-importance of American History X and the like. Turgoose, a non-actor, has the raw defiance of someone forced to grow up too soon, but he also shows a surprising vulnerability, especially in scenes with his mother (Jo Hartley) and his girlfriend Smell (Rosamund Hanson). And as Combo, the charismatic and dangerous leader of the skinheads, Stephen Graham (best known as Jason Statham’s partner in Snatch) is both charismatic and dangerous, as well as being more complicated than he first appears.
This week’s top reissue is Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, his rarely screened debut film that finally garnered a modest theatrical release this year after mostly being seen at festivals and underground screenings. Burnett is one of the few filmmakers today, let alone African-American filmmakers, who can’t be put inside any sort of box, and this film, which basically follows the lives of one family in Watts as they struggle day to day, is a good example of his method. Rather than being a plotted film, this is more a mosaic of how lower-class people struggle to live their lives, yet still maintain a certain dignity. Burnett photographed the movie as well, and while this was a student film, he gets lyrical images that would shame veteran filmmakers, and his score (the main reason the film went underground for so long was his difficulty obtaining music rights), ranging from Dinah Washington to Earth, Wind and Fire, is a perfect complement to the film. The DVD comes with a collection of some of Burnett’s short films as well.