In between films at the San Diego Latino Film Festival, I can spare but passing glances at the world outside. And with the NCAA basketball tournament added this Thursday to the ongoing festival, we can’t expect me next week to have eyes for anything else.
Remember Me, from the “quality” TV director Allen Coulter, is a lovers’ tragedy set in New York City in the days leading up to and including 9/11, leaving aside the green-and-white prologue set ten years earlier. Robert Pattinson of “the Twilight saga” and Emilie de Ravin, an unknown to me but not to the Lost generation, do a generally credible and at times mortifying job of behaving like young people trying to impress one another when they hardly yet know who they themselves are, and when they are each having to deal with pre-existing tragedies and troublesome fathers (Pierce Brosnan, Chris Cooper, respectively). Pattinson, who has the most to prove, proves at least that he is not a total cornball when not impersonating an ethical vampire. He continues to speak in that murmurous voice that lures you to lean forward, and he continues to sculpt his hair with a trowel, but on the other hand he discontinues the face powder and the lipstick: every little bit helps. And he acquires some sympathy for his character by declaring D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths to be his “favorite book ever” and by scowling ill-humoredly at a screening of American Pie. It’s possible that 9/11 as a dramatic device could be employed too often in films, and it’s certain that it can be employed too facilely (see Dear John, etc.), but if we accept that date as the 12/7 of our time — as our benchmark, that is, of the sudden and complete changeability of life — we must grant that it hasn’t yet been employed in films anywhere near as much as Pearl Harbor, and that it therefore has a lot more mileage in it. I even now, in numberless old movies, get tingles at re-enactments and fictitious news announcements of the Day of Infamy, and I got tingles here as I saw the stars aligning on that Tuesday morning. And the piling of new tragedy on top of old tragedy lends it a seriousness of purpose that can (unlike Dear John, etc.) actually be taken seriously.
Green Zone feeds off and into the widespread cynicism, which is to say the widespread enlightenment, as to the motives behind the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Matt Damon, maturing into an actor of spartan economy and vigilant interiority, plays the army officer charged with running down the leads to the WMDs, very soon reversing his course (“The intel’s no good”) and independently running down the source of those leads: “Jesus Christ! This is the reason we went to war!” Director Paul Greengrass, as he has done both in docudramas (Bloody Sunday, United 93) and in cloak-and-dagger daydreams (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum), cultivates an air of reality through a grainy washed-out image and a zigging and zagging camera that covers for any inauthenticity by never giving us a good look at what we’re looking at. It cannot cover, however, for screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s penchant for the instructive, reductive talking point (“This country is a powder keg of ethnic instability”) that sounds like nothing anyone would say outside a panel of experts under severe commercial time constraints on CNN. Any deficiencies in the image or the dialogue will not detract from the pell-mell propulsiveness of the action, mostly contained within a single hectic day, the sheer breathless pace of it and the distance over which that pace is sustained. The relentlessly chugging music doesn’t really seem to help with that, but apparently can’t help itself.
Mother comes from the maker of the South Korean monster movie, The Host, Joon-ho Bong. It comes without a monster, as well as without such staples of the regional cinema as ghosts, gore, and martial arts. It is instead a straightforward detective story about a Mommie Fearless who launches her own investigation to clear her retarded son of a murder charge, pursuing a solid chain of clues to a satisfying if unsettling and unconventional conclusion. It remains all the same a tribute to Mother Love, however warped. Though the director still shows a weakness (a little less of a one) for the dopey comedy that weakened The Host, this is a small matter alongside the endlessly exciting wide-screen visuals, the meticulous compositions, the inventive variety of approaches, the full compass of angles, the especially good use of long shots of all distances — all the things, in short, that would enable us to speak, in highfalutin terms, of a broad cinematic vocabulary and a flexible syntax. The perfect antidote, should you need one, to the motion-sickening monotony of Paul Greengrass.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a homegrown adaptation by Niels Arden Oplev of the international best-seller by Stieg Larsson. Despite my own happy participation in the Scandinavian wave of detective novels (all the Kurt Wallander mysteries of Henning Mankell, plus handfuls of others that have failed to distinguish themselves on the same level), I have passed on this one: too fat, too long. The movie is long, too, two and a half hours with almost half an hour of anti- or post-climax. In the early going, it juggles two separate cases and two separate investigators, a Leftist muckraking journalist (Michael Nyqvist, with his Richard Burtonish full-moon cratered face) and a security-firm computer geek (Noomi Rapace, a sort of young Claire Bloom) who sports two nose rings, numerous ear piercings, a Goth hairdo and wardrobe, and of course the titular tattoo over her entire back. Eventually the two investigators team up on the sketchier and shakier of the cases: the forty-year-old disappearance and presumed murder of a teenage girl whose body, on a sealed-off island, was never recovered. Mystery fans’ alarm bells will begin ringing even before the girl’s favorite uncle explains how she was in the habit of giving him an annual framed botanical and how he has continued annually to receive an anonymous framed botanical which he theorizes has been sent tauntingly by her killer. This, need I say, was not my theory. Perhaps our indignity over the multiple revelations of ugly sexual violence is hoped to blind us to the shoddy plotting and the plodding development. (That, and perhaps also the cracklingly crisp photography.) But the would-be “touching” ending is, for my taste, soured by the unasked question of how many women were raped, tortured, and murdered over those forty years so that we could have a touching ending.
I should throw a glance, also, at an attractive series of films put on by the San Diego Italian Film Festival for the next four Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., at the Flower Hill Cinemas: Rossellini’s Il Generale della Rovere on March 18, Olmi’s Il Posto on March 25, Germi’s Seduced and Abandoned on April 1, and on April 8 Fellini’s Amarcord, the only one of the four that has hereabouts seen the light of the big screen in decades. Whether it will be the light of a movie projector or a video projector, I couldn’t say. But I could suspect.
Back at the festival, meantime: I can report that Carlos Saura’s impeccably groomed Io, Don Giovanni, in Italian primarily and a little German, adds a new wrinkle, a new byway, to his impressive canon of movie musicals: the backstage opera film, 18th Century. It has one more scheduled screening on Saturday morning.