You simply wish to nip over to France for a couple, three weeks, prior to the full-on rush of prize-hunters in the year’s final quarter, and you find on your return that new movies by Jane Campion, Michael Moore, Steven Soderbergh, and the Coen brothers are already or imminently in play. Where summer seems to start earlier and earlier, so now does fall. Add to that a prescheduled four hours in the dentist’s chair and an unscheduled crashed computer, taking with it all the secret codes essential to translate the peckings on the keyboard into a professionally formatted newspaper column, and the weary wayfarer might well yearn to have hunkered down till springtime within the fortified walls of medieval Carcassonne. All of which is by way of explaining that for the foreseeable future I shall have to dish out more injustice even than usual, and that, given the rpm of the revolving door at the multiplex, I may just have to wave bye-bye to the likes of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, I Hope They Serve Beer in Heaven, I Can Do Bad All by Myself, All about Steve, Love Happens, Fame, Gamer, Pandorum, Sorority Row, Jennifer’s Body, and I don’t know what all.
The Campion, Bright Star, deserves the fullest and fairest justice, and by itself provides sufficient reason to abandon thoughts of hibernation. As recounted by the filmmaker, unusually taking sole screenwriting credit in addition to directing, the ill-starred love story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne is such as to make us ask ourselves when we last had on screen a love story we could believe in. (In the Mood for Love, maybe? 2001?) That, or more exactly the believability part of it, is truly saying something when the principal characters are so prone to recite poetry extemporaneously, not only the poet who wrote it — the perfect Platonic ideal of the Poet, or at any rate the Romantic incarnation of him, the poet who first brought into verse a personal, a confidential voice — but also the smitten one who, having invested in a copy of Endymion “to see if he’s an idiot or not,” has committed his words to memory: incontrovertible evidence of love. There is, what’s more, some high-flown talk of poetry in a private tutorial (“Poems are a strain to work out,” complains the beginning student), although a pedant might insist on pointing out that Keats’s famous dictum about poetry coming as naturally as leaves to a tree was no more than a rationale for his handicapping reluctance to rewrite and revise.
This is a closely observed affair, followed with patience and fascination, from spark to flame, a bonding of hearts with no assistance from lower organs, what once went unashamedly and today goes blushingly by the name of True Love. With or without a capital “R,” Bright Star is a deeply romantic movie. Campion can often be candidly carnal, as in Sweetie, The Piano, Holy Smoke, and In the Cut, and she certainly here is highly sensual, making great play of birdsong, breezes, snow, rain, gauze curtains, flapping sheets on clotheslines, a roomful of butterflies, a human nest in a treetop, and while the inevitable Vermeery white light is nothing to get excited about, the color loses none of its vividness and precision for its paleness and delicacy. But the expressions of passion per se have been strictly limited to things like tender touches, first kiss, love letters, fetishistic fondling, and the physical pain of separation. The dirty deed is never approached, unless you can see a symbol in the needlework of the heroine, a cutting-edge fashionista of the early 19th Century, inspiration for some delightful period costumes. Abbie Cornish, a sort of plumper, healthier, not to mention younger Nicole Kidman, and a fey Ben Whishaw are completely convincing and captivating as the lovers, but then there isn’t a wrong note down to the last and least of the cast members (special mention, all the same, of Paul Schneider as Keats’s protective, possessive, misogynistic, boorishly plaid-pantsed fellow poet, Edie Martin as Fanny’s precocious carrot-haired little sister, Kerry Fox as their fretful though unmeddlesome mother, and Antonia Campbell-Hughes as the overawed illiterate maid). If I were to hunt out a misstep in the movie I would have to go as far into it as the clichéd hair-shearing of the heroine and her soliloquized sonnet after getting the news of Keats’s death. This thoroughly enveloping movie had to let you go sometime. It may just let you go a minute or two early.
The Moore, Capitalism: A Love Story, needless to say is not a love story, believable or otherwise. “Capitalism is an evil, and you cannot regulate evil.” In other words, Capitalism: A Horror Story, the moral of which might best be summed up as capitalism, no; democracy, yes — a tricky distinction for simpletons who think the only alternative to capitalism is totalitarian communism. Moore’s shtick as the schlumpy crusader, the Lieutenant Columbo of the Radical Left, has gotten a little tired, or maybe it’s just Moore himself who has gotten tired, but in any case he now seems less funny and less inclined to be so than in the past. And as the wit and the invention have thinned, the whine and the sneer in his voice have proportionately thickened. He has still dug up some treasures of found footage (an educational documentary on the fall of Ancient Rome, a Ronald Reagan cowboy film, a newsreel of the near-death FDR proposing his Second Bill of Rights), and he engineers some amusing juxtapositions in the editing room, yet the vast bulk of his movie divides into arbitrary anecdotes of human interest, on the one hand, and on the other a rehash of a subject already well and recently covered, the Meltdown and the Bailout. More simply, economics is by nature a dull subject on screen, and Moore has managed insufficiently to enliven it.
The Soderbergh, The Informant!, serves as a fact-based fictional ancillary to the Moore, detailing an impenetrable case of corporate skullduggery blown wide open by an ambiguous black-hatted whistleblower. It is the most challenging of the director’s three or four films so far this year — Che: Part One, Che: Part Two, and The Girlfriend Experience — if only because of its placement in the mainstream multiplex instead of the broad-minded art house: a kind of anti-Hitchcock suspense comedy, grudgingly putting any cards at all on the table, keeping the surprises coming only by keeping us in the dark, flouting the Master’s tried-and-true method of fully briefing us. (It’s also anti-Hitchcock in its rosy, fuzzy, vaporous image.) The hero’s meandering stream-of-consciousness narration (“I like my hands. I think they’re my favorite part of my body”) gives us constant clues as to the variety of nut we are dealing with; and the exclamation point in the title, the anachronistic Groovy Sixties lettering, and the chipper Marvin Hamlisch background music, all to ensure that we know this is a comedy, seem outsized for the actual level of amusement: seldom laugh-out-loud but often lip-twisting. Matt Damon puts up some surprisingly strong competition for future William Macy roles, in a stick-on mustache and a crimpy hairpiece which he waits an hour and a half to tug at, giving up all pretense of fooling anyone, and waits all the way to the epilogue to remove altogether. Scott Bakula effortlessly upstages him as the flat-haired, furrowed-browed straight man, a straight-arrow FBI guy. Luckily for Damon, Bakula is much off-screen.
The Coen brothers’, opening Friday, will have to wait. Not to be coy about it, A Serious Man is a special movie; like Bright Star, made out of the purest artistic impulse, to please its maker, and let the filmgoer catch up if he can. It, no matter how short a time it may stay in theaters, should outrun the entire generation and the next. I will do it injustice as soon as possible. I regret, meantime, that before it exited the Gaslamp theater I could say nothing about Jia Zhangke’s rueful rumination on a factory closing in contemporary China, 24 City, a visually eloquent talking-heads movie, or really talking torsos against meaningful backgrounds, dispensing an indeterminable blend of truth and fiction (Joan Chen interviewed as a woman widely recognized as looking like Joan Chen). All I can do with it is snap it up as an appetizer to the San Diego Asian Film Festival, “2 Weeks, 200 Films, Endless Possibilities,” October 15 through 29 at the UltraStar Mission Valley in Hazard Center (sdaff.org). Overlappingly but more intermittently, the San Diego Italian Film Festival, featuring a retrospective of director Paolo Virzì, runs from October 15 through November 7 at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park (sandiegoitalianfilmfestival.com). And before all that, the San Diego Latino Film Festival juggles two films throughout the next week in its monthly Cinema en Tu Idioma series, Pablo Trapero’s Leonera from Argentina and Pablo Larrain’s Tony Manero from Chile, at the UltraStar Mission Valley. Finally, Friday evening at 7:00 at the D.G. Wills bookstore in La Jolla there will be a “hometown” launch party of the long-aborning Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, just over a year after the author’s death, with his widow and late-period collaborator, Patricia Patterson, in attendance, along with the book’s editor, Robert Polito. Something else to which to mete out injustice.