Wednesday, February 06, 2013

4:44 Last Day on Earth/ Gone Fishing/ Jack Reacher

4:44 Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara - France/USA) 88 mins

I have to admit to being a bit of an Abel Ferrara-agnostic. I can accept the majesty of some of his films — The Bad Lieutenant in particular — but too often his work seems like a overly-theoretical mulch, which is strange given he started off a filmmaker of such rude energy. His lack of self-discipline has, over the years, critically impeded his filmmaking, and his much-lauded interrogation of Catholic guilt usually leaves me bored (though that might have much to do with me being a non-believer who finds Catholicism fascinating but Catholic guilt as elusive a chimera as a Yeti or those forty different Eskimo words for snow.)

Ferrara is now a Buddhist, under the influence of his new wife Shanyn Leigh, who here plays the female lead, a painter, Skye, who is spending with her actor partner, Willem Dafoe, the last day before the apocalypse hits. There is not a complete break with the Catholicism of old but there is a lot of Buddhism on display, in the form of televised interviews with the Dalai Lama and lectures by Geshe Michael Roach, which Skye listens to as she quixotically paints what will be her ultimate work. There is also Charlie Rose interviewing Al Gore (now vindicated by the impending doom), and some awful twaddle from Joseph Campbell.

The upside is the overriding sense you get from Ferrara’s intertextual collage is one of theological uncertainty, with the only constants being the resolve of the film’s various recovering addicts not to succumb again to drug use before the end. Not unlike Don McKellar’s Last Night, Ferrara’s film is surprisingly grounded in earthly concerns. There are also fine moments of touching drama, such as where a Vietnamese delivery boy skypes his family on Dafoe’s computer to say goodbye. 4:44 is not the masterpiece French critics have claimed it is but it is a welcome exercise in modesty and a streamlining of Abel Ferrara’s often cacophonous argumentation.

Gone Fishing (Días de pesca) (Carlos Sorín - Argentina) 78 mins

The latest of Sorín’s miniaturist dramas and yet another that takes as its hero an ordinary male Argentine cast adrift in the world. Marco, a middle-aged travelling salesman has decamped to the wilds of Patagonia to do some shark-fishing, despite having barely wielded a rod in his life. We learn early on he is a recovering alcoholic and the trip has been recommended as an activity to keep him away from temptations. The film follows him through one humdrum encounter after another in Puerto Deseado, as he meets a garrulous boxing coach, a trio of pot-smoking Colombian backpackers and a fishing instructor who finds he has a real tyro on his hands.

Marco is also on the look-out for his daughter, with whom he has lost touch several years earlier and who had moved to the region. This appears to be another stage on his quest for self-affirmation and the scenes where he tries to buy a toy for his infant grandson have a comic echo of the travelling salesman’s purchase of a birthday cake in Sorín’s 2001 film Historías Minimas. But there is an uncomfortable ambiguity about Marco. He is a gentle, shy character, in keeping with Sorín’s usual protagonists but you get the sense he has scarred those he has known in his past. Alejandro Awada’s performance is natural and self-effacing to the point of poignancy yet, even without recourse to much information about what has gone before, he imparts the slightest sense of childish insecurity, just enough to make you doubt.

Gone Fishing is, for all its apparent gentleness, probably Sorín’s darkest film to date. He is an able director at filming professional and non-professional actors together and he has equal sympathy for the Patagonian landscape and the lives of ordinary people. Probably the only serious flaw is the syrupy music that occasionally threatens to drag the film down to afternoon-TV level, but the goodness of the film shines through. Sorín’s films are occasionally great but one thing they always are is good. Indelibly good.

Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie - USA) 131 mins

Jack Reacher starts off promisingly enough, with an extended sequence of an assassin positioning himself on the edge of the Allegheny river in Pittsburgh and taking aim, seemingly randomly, at a group of pedestrians on the waterfront opposite. It reminds me you of The Conversation and The Parallax View and other 70s paranoia thrillers. These days the best most Hollywood films can aim for is a pastiche of films from that paradise lost of American cinema. Unfortunately for Jack Reacher, it doesn’t even get that far in the end.

That’s not to say it’s a film totally without merit; it’s just that much of the good in it is over-egged — McQuarrie’s fastidiously honed dialogue, the brief lurch into faint subversiveness with its Iraq war back-story…and Tom Cruise. The diminutive Dianetician, as producer, and main-man, playing a mercurial former US military policeman, indulges himself no end, being at turns sexy, mysterious, menacing, canny, and, most of all, indestructible. It is an act of all-in megalomania without parallel in contemporary cinema — we see all facets of Tom’s repertoire, from all angles. Jack Reacher is unconfined by the dull constraints of narrative perspective, he is actorly Cubism personified.

Unfortunately he is upstaged most cruelly by Werner Herzog, who hams it up splendidly in a preposterously Old World way, with his improbable non-Russian accent, his world-weary clownish psychopathy and his irreducible Herzogness. It’s no real contest in the end and you wonder was it an intentional act of masochism on Cruise’s part to cast Herzog opposite him. Other than that, the film rapidly descends into a mess, albeit a mildly entertaining one. The initial intrigue is predictably supplanted by a wider conspiracy that is a lot less interesting than it thinks it is and one’s heartfelt sympathy goes out to Rosamund Pike, who starts off as a hot-shot lawyer and ends up an old-fashioned damsel in distress. A diverting film but not one that will loom too large in even the Cruise canon; and there will be more, the man has bought the rights to the whole series of Lee Child novels.