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Keeping the Faith:’s 2002 Mid-Year Roundup

Halfway to Hell! That’s what we said last year around this time, gloomily sifting through the meager offerings of quality cinema in 2001 and mostly drawing up blanks. It’s comforting to acknowledge that this year, by and large there’s been a higher volume of outstanding work from the studios, independents, and foreign marketplace.

While it’s frustrating to see a thoughtful, cinematically astonishing, technically innovative, and emotionally awakened milestone of popular entertainment like Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report competing neck-and-neck with the familiar Lilo & Stitch and the execrable Mr. Deeds, at least Spielberg is providing a high water mark for summer movies to live up to. And those big studio filmmakers should also be chasing Spielberg’s flame — I don’t see a Raiders of the Lost Ark, an E.T., or even a Jurassic Park in the future for hacks like Michael Bay, Ridley Scott, and Antoine Fuqua. (The chief competition? Peter Jackson’s return to Middle Earth with The Two Towers this December, easily one of the most anticipated movies of the fall alongside Spielberg’s own Catch Me If You Can.)

Is Sam Raimi’s rise from the cult fame of his Evil Dead series to mainstream acceptance a cause for celebration? The vote’s not in yet, though Spider-Man feels enormously compromised. The sequences where Spidey webs his way across cityscapes or discovers his wall-crawling super powers are appropriately dazzling, appropriately Raimi; the cleanly written prologue where Tobey Maguire gets bitten by the radioactive spider gets the job done. The movie’s almost worth sitting through for its four or five moments of breathtaking spectacle, though the rest of it is negligible: TV-movie quality romance, a villain (Willem Dafoe) without an agenda, and bland photography during its endless dialogue scenes where nothing jumps out at you with eye-popping comic book style. There was more pow in Raimi’s Darkman, and we have to wonder if the guy has lost his edge now that he’s swimming in a bigger Hollywood sea.

I much preferred George Lucas playing with his toys in Attack of the Clones, an artistic failure cursed with flattened digital photography, but at least Lucas hasn’t lost his boyish sense of awe. Virtually every scene is pretty to look at, with computer generated landscapes providing a richer sense of character than the puppy dog lovebirds or the long-winded ‘secret army’ plot device. There’s very little to grab hold of in the story, unlike the easy yet accessible struggle of good versus evil in the original Star Wars trilogy. Lucas has made a leaps-and-bounds improvement over The Phantom Menace, with occasional setpieces that rouse and delight, though he ought to let someone else direct next time. Irwin Kirschner (The Empire Strikes Back) might be looking for work.

Or Doug Liman, for that matter, who smacks Lucas and Raimi aside with his smaller, tighter, well-oiled machine The Bourne Identity. They could have called it Matt Runs, since it places a deer-in-the-headlights amnesiac Matt Damon in the middle of a European mystery tour, chased by a who’s who of outstanding character actors (Clive Owen’s svelte professorial assassin; Brian Cox and Chris Cooper as cagey bureaucrats). Speeding up and down the narrow streets of Paris, Liman runs Damon through a series of imaginatively staged hoops. That’s fun, even if it’s not particularly innovative (we’ve been spoiled by Minority Report). What Liman doesn’t skimp on is heart and soul, found in the sexually charged parlay between Damon and his wayward companion, Franka Potente. With minimal dialogue and maximum expressiveness, Damon and Potente tap into the discovery of someone new in their lives, someone they’d like to have sex with, and though Liman’s discreet when they make their move he allows Potente full control of the scene. The look on her face, after Damon’s been guiding them through the spy games, says, ‘OK, mister. Enough games. Do me now.’ That’s unquestionably more compelling than the timid couplings in Spider-Man or Clones.

There’s dumb Americana at work in The Sum of All Fears and Spider-Man, with their post-September 11th jitters causing them to second-guess themselves. The appearance and absence of the Twin Towers in Spider-Man calls far too much attention to itself, a tacked on, self-important gesture that kowtows more than it acknowledges. And Sum ought to be a poster boy for Hollywood’s handling of mass tragedy, which has often been a joke — having Ben Affleck march into the nuclear devastation of a Ground Zero with no fear of radioactive fallout is as offensive and stupid as Billy Zane popping off caps at Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic as the multitudes drown; or Independence Day‘s dog leaping away to safety from an alien death ray that has demolished Washington, D.C.

Some of the memorable independents that have been working their way through art houses across America include David Jacobson’s Dahmer, a melancholy examination of the notorious serial killer. Treating the title character as a whole person instead of a demonized monster doesn’t mean Jacobson shies away from true horror, though his handling of murder as a lost man’s sole means of human connection won’t inspire much comfort or easy identification. Hal Hartley showed a more literal monster in No Such Thing, his angry and inspired retaliation against consumer culture with a beast (Robert John Burke) whose beauty (Sarah Polley) leads him from his Icelandic cave to TV stardom and infamy. And Nicole Holofcener’s Lovely & Amazing and Ilya Chaiken’s Margarita Happy Hour were women’s stories told with humor, pathos, and integrity that shine through their low budget scrappiness.

And the French have made their presence known on our shores, most indelibly in Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, a vampire parable set in contemporary Paris with a young American doctor (Vincent Gallo) sorting through his desires, faith, and history. The taboo-b
reaking finale, an act of bloodletting not for the squeamish, gets right down to the nitty-gritty of original sin. Middle-class alienation is the subject of Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, where an unemployed white-collar manager (Aurelien Recoing) pretends for the sake of his family that he still has a job. There hasn’t been a more horrifying moment or a subtler nuance than the way the superb lead actor Aurelien Recoing sits through an interview speech about being part of the family then slowly, deceitfully, with a sad smile announces, ‘I’m not afraid.’

Finally, a few movies to look forward to: In his dazzling kaleidoscope 24 Hour Party People, British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom charts the British Music Invasion from the last days of punk to the emergence of pop artists Joy Division, New Order, The Happy Mondays, and Morrissey (who’s sadly missing from the rogue’s gallery of characters in the movie). The digital cinematography by Robby Mueller captures the explosive, joyous feeling of a cultural revolution. The rest of the Cannes line-up looked just as rich: Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (his Sirkian melodrama), another Mike Leigh domestic drama called All or Nothing, David Cronenberg’s freaky Spider, and an audacious one-take movie from Aleksandr Sokurov called Russian Ark. Combine that with Gangs of New York and it’s plain to see that 2002 is a time of optimism, at least when it comes to the movies. Let’s hope it lives up to its potential.

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