On Sunday, this year’s Best Picture winner is going to be crowned, and all indications suggest that the big winner on the night is going to be Argo. No one seems to be particularly upset about this – something of a relief a year after all the spittle spewed by cinephiles over the victory of The Artist – but it does mean that Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty, the two movies on the docket that probably have the most fervent groups of supporters, are likely to be shut out completely. That’s not upsetting to me personally – neither movie made the cut on my top five films of 2012 – but both films, as the objects of such fervent (if minority) admiration, as two of the most controversial releases of the year, and as the two best examples of contemporary American auteurism to be found in 2012, are deserving of further exploration.
In a year of highly-hyped movies that were supposed to be great – that by all accounts should have been great – Looper is an anomaly, a comparatively small-budget (at $30 million) high-concept sci-fi that was almost under-marketed and that landed with a soft bang last weekend to universal praise and decent box office. It’s been drawing frequent comparisons to Inception, and with good reason: differences in scale aside, we’re not used to our action movies being intellectually challenging, and both films tackle mind-bending subject matter with similarly mind-bending directorial deftness. Just as notably, they’re both original creations in a world where the familiar is king.
I started writing a review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s newest offering The Master a week ago, in the aftermath of seeing it projected in glorious 70mm at the Arclight Dome in Hollywood. Yet the more I tried to say about it, the more I found myself wandering in different directions that had little to do with the movie I had actually watched: reflections on American auteurism, contrasts between the new film and Anderson’s previous work, and commentary on Anderson’s use of 70mm are all relevant to how we think about The Master, but all of them deal with the film as it exists in cinematic discourse rather than with the work of art itself.
WARNING: DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.
Given the open ending and overwhelming critical and financial success of its predecessor, there may not be a movie in the history of cinema that was more certain to be made than The Dark Knight Rises. And, short, perhaps, of George Lucas’s second Star Wars trilogy, it may be that no previous movie has ever been the subject of such high expectations from its producers and its audience alike. On July 19th, a day before the movie opened, the possibility for both a Best Picture nomination and the title of highest-grossing film of all time were legitimately in play. And why not? Batman Begins, released in 2005, was by itself one of the best superhero movies that we’d seen to that point. The Dark Knight, three years later, redefined the model of what a superhero movie could be, and even led directly to a change in the structure of the Academy Awards. Meanwhile, director Christopher Nolan, in his breaks between movies, had directed a well-received Victorian magician drama in The Prestige and a Best Picture-nominated blockbuster in Inception. Reasons for optimism, in other words, were everywhere.
Much hullabaloo has been made about the relation of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus to the Alien franchise that he began back in 1979. None of that, it turns out, was justified: this is a straightforward prequel to Scott’s original film, bearing scenes and sequences that seem directly copied from its predecessor while gluing on a ponderous philosophical exoskeleton that is largely mumbo-jumbo and that seems to run parallel, not integral, to what is happening on screen.
Comedy, in any age, is too often based on fart jokes and the incongruities of sex, enough so that we have an entire genre (the romantic comedy, of course) that’s based on the two. That being so, it’s a refreshing and unusual change to see the standard gags turned to timely and mordant commentary on real issues in the life of the world. And, in the character of a buffoonish dictator, that is precisely what one of our great comedians has done: use laughter to point out the absurdities of a system while also offering a deep humanist plea to his audience. I am referring, of course, to Charles Chaplin, whose 1940 film The Great Dictator lampooned the fascist dictatorships of Germany in Italy before the United States was at war with them and which, despite veering into some unfortunate socialist territory at times, is marked most of all in its optimism about the potential of man’s generosity to man.
The big movie story of last week, as fans of The Avengers (apparently every person on the planet, based on how hard it was to get a ticket for 11am on a Sunday) will already know, was Samuel L Jackson’s vitriolic response to AO Scott’s ambivalent review of the movie. It’s not surprising that Scott’s review wasn’t glowing – he’s as good as openly admitted to having little tolerance for Supers – but Jackson’s response seemed out of proportion, and, perhaps, in its mild air of entitlement, a depressing exclamation point on the seeming irrelevance with these movies, not of critics and criticism, exactly, so much as the very idea of ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
Cults, it seems, have made a comeback these last couple of years: after Martha Marcy May Marlene got Elizabeth Olsen some under-the-radar awards buzz last year, 2012 sees the high-profile release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, his first since instant classic There Will Be Blood came out in 2007. In the same vein is the smaller-sized Sound Of My Voice, an indy co-written by rising star Brit Marling and director Zal Batmanglij that premiered at SXSW. Like Martha Marcy, it’s driven by the charisma of its cult leader (John Hawkes in Martha, Marling here) and by its spinning top of an ending. With these movies, as with the cults that they emulate, success is a game of teasing and ambiguity, giving you just enough to begin to believe but not so much that your doubts are assuaged.
Sports movies are their own subgenre in American filmmaking, but the relative popularity of a sport doesn’t seem to have much correlation with how much it resonates on the big screen. Probably no sport has produced as many genuinely good movies as baseball, which would seem unsurprising given that game’s history and enduring appeal to the general public, yet football, the most popular sport in the country by a healthy margin, has given us only Rudy, Brian’s Song, and… what? The Blind Side? As a nation, we ignore boxing but we love boxing movies; Hoosiers is about the only feature film about basketball worth watching; and Match Point remains perhaps the only good tennis movie ever, and it is emphatically not about tennis.
Hockey, with its violence, its speed, its subcultures of drinking and militant nationalism (the latter two being frequently combined), seems to offer fertile thematic ground for filmmakers, but, outside of 2004’s Miracle and of course the Holy Trilogy of the Mighty Ducks, has been largely ignored by Hollywood. (One wonders if that’s to some degree because the American film industry is held hostage by the warm, endless pavement of Los Angeles.) That makes Goon, not just a hockey movie but a surprisingly good and heartfelt one as well, a welcome presence at our multiplexes.
Some movies qualify as specialty releases because their subject material is controversial; others, because they’re stylistically far outside the mainstream. Occasionally, though, it’s because their subject material is so minor or quirky that it’s hard to imagine how it could possibly draw any sort of significant audience. That is the group that Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, the new film from umlauted Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, belongs to.
Really, the title tells you everything that you need to know about the movie: a wealthy-beyond-wealth Yemeni sheik wants to ‘introduce the sport of salmon fishing into the Yemen,’ and he enlists the help of one of his money managers (Emily Blunt) and a Scottish official in the UK government’s fish and game department (Ewan McGregor) to make it happen. Powering the project forward is Britain’s Press Minister (Kirsten Scott Thomas), whose knack for smelling out stories beneficial to her government is matched only by her disdain for her coworkers. Naturally, there’s a personality clash between McGregor’s Freddie, who initially views the whole thing as an insult to the great salmon population of the British Isles, and Blunt’s Harriet, a London yuppie who just wants the sheik to get what he wants, and also naturally, their feelings deepen beyond what they’d expected.
There’s some heavy stuff mixed in – apparently the sheik’s love for salmon fishing isn’t appreciated by some in his homeland, who view him as becoming too Western – and all that comes off as the effort to make the subject material more broad and relevant. Frankly, though, Salmon Fishing is at its strongest when it acknowledges how thoroughly silly it is, and when it remembers that the only thing that makes an audience care, really, is how it feels about the characters, and by extension how the characters feel about their situation.
I don’t mean to suggest that the movie would be better if it stayed more permanently and comfortably within Scott Thomas’s wisecracking wheelhouse. Rather, it’s far more interesting to watch McGregor’s Freddie discovering that he cares about a project that he initially dismissed than to watch nameless beturbaned villains plotting against the sheik for being too Western. Similarly, the simple progression of the love story between Freddie and Blunt’s Harriet is far more engaging, and far more human, than the hackneyed dilemma that Harriet is presented with at the end of the film.
All of which is to say: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a charming, thoroughly minor, piece of work. There’s nothing wrong with that: just such a film just won the biggest prize in cinema at the Oscars, after all. It does mean, however, that it’s hard to find anything interesting to say about it.
But then, surely not every movie needs to be a conversation starter, so long as manages to entertain; and, through its clever jokes, its attractive characters, and, yes, even through its occasional absurdities, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen does at least manage that.