Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bad, Better & Baffling

Often in Critics at Large, Shlomo Schwartzberg likes grouping films together when he reviews. In this case, he matched a bad one with a better one and concluded with an addendum to one that still baffled him.

Trio: The Debt, Submarine and a final comment on The Tree of Life

Despite being the locus of so much American media coverage, Israel doesn’t figure very prominently in U.S. TV and cinema. Since those productions are expected to travel abroad and make money, likely their creators, for the most part, would rather avoid dealing with the subject for fear of losing sales in anti-Israel markets or risk alienating European audiences, who don’t much like the Jewish state. If they didn’t think like that, at least one James Bond movie would have had a Tel Aviv setting. In fact, except for the regular character of ex-Mossad agent Ziva David on TV’s NCIS, and the odd Israeli reference in Alias or a few scenes in Charlie Wilson’s War – which was nonetheless careful not to identify Jerusalem as actually being part of Israel, much less its capital  the country is rarely even mentioned at all. Thus, it’s most surprising that Miramax decided to remake the 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov (The Debt), which revolves around three Mossad agents sent to capture a key Nazi in 1965, and what happens afterwards.. But The Debt, despite its potentially juicy plot, is a rather lacklustre affair that never feels as authentic as it wants to be.

The film begins in 1966 with the triumphant trio, David Perez (Sam Worthington), Rachel Singer (Jessica Chastain) and Stefan Gold (Marton Csokas), returning home from East Berlin and their mission to capture Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christiansen  Mr. White in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace), known as ‘The Surgeon of Birkenau.’ (That’s an obvious nod to the sadistic Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, whom the Israelis actually tried, but failed, to capture over the years.) Declaring Vogel dead, shot by Rachel when he tried to escape, they’re greeted as national heroes. Flashforward to 1997, and the now-elderly Rachel (Helen Mirren), David (Ciaran Hinds) and Stefan (Tom Wilkinson) are shaken when a man, in an asylum in the Ukraine, claims to be Vogel. What really happened in Berlin? Did Vogel indeed die? That’s the gist of The Debt, which straddles two timelines as it tackles the big issues: guilt, vengeance, truth and what debt, if any, the agents owe to their country and themselves.

Sam Worthington in The Debt
I've not seen the original Israeli film, but the remake, written by three different screenwriters (Matthew Vaughan, Jane Goldman and Peter Straughan) seems to downplay its Talmudic, questioning concerns, in favour of too many generic and badly directed action sequences. Director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) botches the agents’ initial foray into Berlin as they plot to snatch Vogel, and the film in general possesses none of the tension that was second nature to Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), which expertly laid out a true life, and highly suspenseful, Mossad mission to eliminate all the Palestinian terrorists who were involved in the attack that killed eleven Israeli athletes and their coaches at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Munich also had a specific, wry Jewish flavour, notably in the key scene when the agents, over a brisket dinner, get to know each other and their backgrounds. The Debt, by contrast, never feels all that genuine, a decision hindered further by not having any actual Hebrew spoken in the film, though the agents speak German when in Berlin. (The movie was partially shot in Tel Aviv, but Israel never comes alive on screen.)

You could be forgiven if you forget that The Debt concerns a unique mission, with the representatives of the victims of the Holocaust capturing one of the genocidal murderers, and not only holding his fate in their hands but needing to decide how to avoid descending to his animalistic level even as they, understandably, hunger to enact vengeance on their captive. Too often, The Debt is merely a deracinated story of a group of spies catching a bad guy, with the rather banal love triangle that develops among Rachel and the two men who desire her, often taking centre stage to the detriment of the plot. Perhaps the Israeli movie balanced the two elements of the story better, but this remake certainly does not. (I am not picky about accents per se, but for the record, Helen Mirren’s Rachel is the most convincing of them all. She also gives the film’s best performance as a woman who has so many regrets about the past, which don’t just include the vital mission that defined her life. The rest of the cast is adequate, though Hinds and Wilkinson are underused and Worthington’s young David is rather bland. At least Chastain has a part, unlike her saintly mother in The Tree of Life, which gives her a little bit to chew on.)

The Debt might have worked better if it had shifted back and forth more often, tying the past to the present and showcasing how the agents have both changed and stayed the same since 1966. But the film is essentially split in two and the halves never cohere into a satisfying whole. I can see why Hollywood wanted to redo the movie – it’s a relevant, sellable story – but like so many remakes, this one barely raises a sweat.

Craig Roberts & Yasmine Paige in Submarine

With some half a dozen films opening each week in Toronto, it’s not so easy to spot the sleepers among the bunch, at least partly because most film critics tend to focus more on the big Hollywood blockbusters, which are usually the lead reviews, or the provocative art house offerings, and less on the smaller release. That’s likely why it took me awhile to catch up with Richard Ayoade’s 2010 first film Submarine, a smart 1980s-set coming-of-age comedy/drama that at its best reminded me of Bill Forsyth’s delightful comedy Gregory’s Girl (1981). The two movies are not exactly alike – Gregory’s Girl was set in a candy-coloured Scotland, Submarine takes place in a harsher-looking Wales – but both movies offer protagonists, and situations, unlike any you’ve seen on screen before.

Submarine is narrated by 15-year-old Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), a more innocent but putatively cynical version of The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, who is pining after eccentric Jordana Bevan (Yasmine Paige). He is simultaneously trying to stave off the possible breakup-up of his parents’ marriage. (Appropriately, J.D. Salinger’s’ seminal novel is referenced in the movie, along with Nietzsche, which should give you some idea of the clever way it looks at the world.) Oliver’s father, Lloyd (Noah Taylor, who played the young Adolf Hitler in Max), and mother, Jill (Happy-Go-Lucky’s Sally Hawkins), don’t really know how to look after or relate to their their son. They're also given to strange utterances and inappropriate behaviour. Naturally, in this off-kilter environment, their neighbours (an unrecognizable Paddy Considine (In America) as a hippieish psychic, and Jill’s first great love, and his Chinese girlfriend Kim-Lin (Gemma Chan)) are odd ducks, too. And while Oliver isn’t your typical awkward adolescent, he’s not a conventional sort either, rather an (overly) imaginative boy who, while not the usual target of bullies, isn’t exactly one of the in-crowd.

What happens in Submarine is rarely predictable and the film, while sometimes erratic – which makes sense filtered through the sensitive point of view of a somewhat troubled adolescent – grows on you. It deftly meshes comedy and drama, displays generosity to all its characters – Graham isn’t the jerk he seems to be at the outset of the movie – and concludes on a satisfying emotional note. Oliver and Jordana’s love story is one of the most original and entertaining ones in years. It’s also well scored by Arctic Monkey’s Alex Turner and Andrew Hewitt, who craft perfectly realized teen-angst songs that someone like Oliver would likely listen to (Turner’s contribution is somewhat surprising, when you consider the raucous output from his band). Granted, Submarine could have been more seamless – you can feel Ayoade, who adapted the screenplay from Joe Dunthorne’s novel, occasionally trying too hard to push the film along. Nonetheless, it’s a striking debut from a filmmaker with a very promising future.
Sean Penn in The Tree of Life

I’ve taken some heat from our readers for my scathing review of The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s overly praised family drama, but I thought I'd share with you an amusing and telling quote that Sean Penn, who appeared in the film, gave to Le Figaro newspaper, regarding his small part in the movie. Suggesting that The Tree of Life could have used a “clearer, more conventional narrative” (I’d agree with the clearer part, but would go for coherent over conventional), he also added, “Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there.” That makes two of us.

Since The Tree of Life's star Brad Pitt had a hard time explaining the film, too, when it premiered at the Cannes film festival last spring, it appears that writer-director Malick may be the only person who can actually tell us what he was trying to do in the movie, but since he’s not talking – he never gives interviews – his cast’s utterances take on a more significant hue. And when one of them wonders what the hell he was supposed to be doing in the film, you know you’ve got problems.

- originally published on September 2, 2011 in Critics at Large.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute.

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