The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – The mushroom cloud of self-righteous public relations that enveloped America after World War II probably made it news in the early sixties that international spies weren’t really a cross between George Hamilton’s looks, Charlie Manson’s murderousness, and Bruce Vilanch’s way with a one-liner, but instead were a lot of results-oriented, paper-pushing “seedy, squalid bastards” who couldn’t always remember why they’d taken up their line of work in the first place. Whatever the truth really was, Martin Ritt decided to ram John Le Carré’s version home with a vengeance, and in the process turned dankness into a triumph of art design. Richard Burton’s tousled hair and grubby raincoat, the grim view of an Iron Curtain guard-booth, the roughhewn armoire that graces a bedroom dungeon, and the gloating social sadism that courses (downhill, of course) through the four-man hierarchy of East German operatives we meet over the course of the movie – everything in it gives off the stench of disuse, frustration, and failure. Oskar Werner plays a highly intelligent chump who, in his goatee and pullovers, looks like Maynard G. Krebs’ successful older brother and gives some impatiently nimble readings. The film is fascinating as the study of a movie-star’s face, with shot after shot tightening on Burton’s magnificently burned-out features; when Claire Bloom emerges from the side door at the tribunal, his eyes retract like camera lenses into black hot beads of panic.
Whale Rider – A curiously lifeless movie considering that it’s constantly pushing its characters’ feelings at you. I’ve always been puzzled by movies that accept as fact an idea whose existence is at best debatable in real life. I can take it in a horror film, even in a case like The Exorcist, in which the Catholic Church, of all things, turns out to have the best handle on things. But Peter Weir’s The Last Wave ends with that apocalyptic wipeout, and even such a beautiful, sensible movie as The Right Stuff has that anomalous scene where the old aborigine sends a fire’s sparks into outer space and presumably has some hand in guiding John Glenn safely back to earth. In Whale Rider it’s the superstitious old grandfather, and not the artistic son who’s fled his regime nor the granddaughter suffering from the old man’s gender biases, who turns out to be right, and the gods and ancestors’ ghosts he keeps worrying about turn out to be real. Huh? But it’s par for the course in a movie that tells us the Maori tribe is falling apart even though its members all seem happy enough once they get a little remove from Grandpa’s ballbusting.
School of Rock – Features a couple of adorable kids, some bouncy light rock, a Joan Cusack reaction shot that’s worth a million bucks, and a Jack Black performance that moves from grating to heroic, but it’s still a teenybopper version of The Dead Poets’ Society, which is almost as frightening as the idea that this thing was a hit with rockers. As with The Commitments and Almost Famous there’s a lot of crypto-Lawrentian lip-service about rock’s purifying properties and Sticking It to The Man, but The Man here is only a woman who resents the deadbeat roommate who never has his share of the rent. School of Rock is one of those movies that show how soft and undemanding audiences have become: it doesn’t have any villains, but simply characters (a school principal, a father) it points to and says, “This is where the villains would be if we’d bothered to have any”; the familiar plot points roll past with the metronomic regularity of boxcars clacking across a railroad crossing; and the whole thing ends with the crowd chanting the band’s name. Jesus. The Bad News Bears should come show these kids what real anarchy looks like.
Swimming Pool – Despite her having a career that’s a monument to incoherence I’ve always felt goodwill toward Charlotte Rampling, yet this thing made me think that George Bush might be onto something when it comes to the French. When I was done watching it I had to ask a buddy what the hell had just happened, and he said, “You see that broad? And you see that other broad? They’re the same broad.” So I punched him. The French used to make a decent mystery without all the misty-poo mind-games, so that even if a dead guy rose up out of a bathtub and started walking around, you knew it was that guy and not some other guy who’d just come in to make everything seem weird. I blame it all on Claude Chabrol, myself.
Touching the Void – Too long by 15 minutes but it’s still refreshing to hear someone say that their atheism was confirmed even as they were lying with a shattered leg at the bottom of a glacier’s crevasse with no reasonable hope of rescue. Kevin Macdonald does a beautiful job of downplaying Joe Simpson’s decision to descend farther into the crevasse in hopes of finding a way out of the glacier he’s trapped in – he leaves it to us to figure out that the decision is a psychological parable as well as a model of commonsense. And the moment that Simpson gets a bubblegum pop-song stuck in his head when he’s lying at death’s door – well, that’s just chilling.
The Fog of War – Errol Morris sets Robert McNamara dodging the tough questions to a dull Philip Glass score.