Demme, Frears, Hooper, Lee, Wang

Swimming to Cambodia (Jonathan Demme, 1987). Jonathan Demme may not have been the best filmmaker of the nineteen-eighties, but I think there’s an argument to be made that he was the most interesting. This film is a good illustration of that point. It’s a film version of one of Spalding Gray’s monologues, a meandering but always focused act of storytelling that springs from his involvement in the film The Killing Fields. Gray’s approach was simplicity itself, sitting behind a small wooden table with his spiral notebook before him and little more than a couple of maps to help fill out the stage. Demme follows suit, but also finds ways to be visually inventive within these confines. As with his earlier masterwork Stop Making Sense, Demme doesn’t view this as something that requires less of his craft, focus and ingenuity as any of his fiction works. It just requires those skills applied in a different way. He presses in at the right moments, uses smart, subtle editing techniques to heighten the moments when Gray’s story shifts, and generally finds a way to make a man sitting and talking for nearly ninety minutes wonderfully cinematic.

Taking Woodstock (Ang Lee, 2009). This movie is so flat and uninvolving that it’s hard to discern why the material ever appealed to Ang Lee, besides perhaps the ready-made excuse for revisiting the comic book panel split screen technique he first used in his unduly maligned take on the Hulk. This time, of course, he’s referencing the famous look of Michael Wadleigh’s concert film, which effectively defined the mammoth peace and music festival for generations to come. Beyond that, it’s hard to find any sign that Lee is actually engaged in the material, which clumsily examines the happening through the eyes of a young man who feels trapped in his small upstate New York town, and, through helping to orchestrate the festival’s descent there, has the sort of breakthrough that inspire him to pack his bags. The casting of Demetri Martin in this pivotal role is a questionable choice, but there’s so little to work with that even a more accomplished actor would’ve struggled to turn the role into a real character instead of an empty figure moving from scene to scene.

The Damned United (Tom Hooper, 2009). As the recipient of plentiful training from Hollywood on how to feel during sports movies, I must note that it was a little disorienting to watch one centered around a pastime and a league with which I have no frame of reference whatsoever. I don’t follow high school basketball, either, but I know enough about it to understand when Hoosiers is guiding through dramatic developments with a little bit of cinematic shorthand. Hooper’s docudrama is about the brief, tumultuous tenure of Brian Clough as manager of Leeds United, a slice of British football history that apparently shudders with infamy, but I may as well be typing about the historic politics of Quidditch leagues for all that means to me. It’s to the credit then of director Tom Hooper and screenwriter Peter Morgan that they make it as interesting as it is, making it a study of destructive, myopic behaviors rather than a rousing march through the world of sport. If Morgan is writing it, then certainly Michael Sheen must be involved. He plays the lead character with craftiness, if not necessarily a lot of depth. More so than with previous Morgan efforts like The Queen and Frost/Nixon, the inherent drama is a little elusive. It winds up as artful depiction rather than sharp storytelling.

My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985). A young Pakistani man living in London goes to work for his successful uncle, eventually convincing him to turn over management of a rundown laundrette. He reaches out to an old childhood friend, now burning around town as an angry punk, to transform it into a lush, spa-like place for residents to come and wash their knickers. Hanif Kureishi wrote the screenplay, which Frears realizes with efficient care. There are a lot of well-meaning points made regarding culture clashes, the pain of hidden love, and the burden of familial obligation. It’s not the acknowledgment of the economic doldrums of Thatcher’s England that tag this as a mid-eighties British production, it’s the earnest hesitancy with which it addresses all of its potentially combustible concerns. Instead of wrenching the drama out of it all, it’s just politely tipping its hat to the audience. With twenty-five years of additional performances to squint past, it’s fun to watch Daniel Day-Lewis as the bleached-hair punk, but, truthfully, his work is more adequate than revelatory, or even promising.

Chan Is Missing (Wayne Wang, 1982). Pure, unadorned and brimming with quiet insight in a way that exemplifies the promise of American independent cinema as it was coming to life in the seventies and eighties, Wang’s film follows two men in San Francisco’s Chinatown as they try to determine what happened to their missing friend. It’s a kindly, casual detective story, but it’s mostly about the ways that a person leaves their mark in small, decisive ways on the community the operate in, and how everyone they encounter has a different view of that person. Everyone sees only a fragment, and helplessly makes that into the whole. It also provides a perfect black and white snapshot of Chinatown at that time. The movie is awash in the culture of the area in a way that feels completely natural. It is unmistakably about those people, that place, that time.

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