Ben Stiller has the rare distinction of starring in two of the funniest American films of the last decade, the Farrelly brothers' There's Something About Mary and David O. Russell's lesser known Flirting with Disaster. Stiller also has the rather more common distinction of starring in a lot of utter rubbish. It will probably come as no surprise that Along Came Polly, out on video this week, falls into the latter category. In Polly, Stiller plays Ruben Feffer, an insurance risk assessor who is predictably terrified of any risk in his personal life.
Vachel Lindsay, the poet who was for a time the film critic of The New Republic, published a book in 1915 called The Art of the Moving Picture, a pioneer work in the field. In one of its many comprehensions, he said: "The supreme photoplay will give us things that have been but half expressed in all other mediums allied to it." I thought of Lindsay while I was watching Troy, the latest in a very long line of films made to give us those things that other mediums could not provide.
Editor's Note: This article has been corrected. If the last few years have taught us anything about the Oscars, it's that the Academy loves a glamorous actress in an unglamorous role. There was Hillary Swank's reverse drag act in 1999, Julia Robert's white-trash beauty queen in 2000, Halle Berry's inmate's widow in 2001, and Nicole Kidman's Pinocchio act in 2002.
Every now and then, a film comes along that clearly demonstrates how low our expectations for the medium have fallen: Give us a few laughs or thrills and avoid abject stupidities, and we'll probably be happy. Osama, the first film produced in post-Taliban Afghanistan, is a reminder that motion pictures can do more, that at their best they can transport us, with utter conviction, to a time and place far removed from our own. In this case the "time" in question is only a few years ago, before the toppling of the Taliban, but it might as easily be millennia.
Anyone seeking evidence of the death of romantic comedy will find it in abundance in Love Actually, which arrives in video stores this week. Written and directed by Richard Curtis (best known for penning Bridget Jones's Diary, Notting Hill, and Four Weddings and a Funeral), Love Actually announces its ambitions early: Too bold to offer us a thin, unconvincing romance, it instead offers us half a dozen.
It's an odd claim to make for a film that won the Oscar for cinematography, but at its best Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (released on video this week) is less a visual experience than an aural one. Director Peter Weir opens with aerial shots of a tall ship accompanied by on-screen text--"H.M.S. Surprise ... N. coast Brazil. Admiralty orders: ... 'Intercept French privateer Acheron en route to Pacific.'"--before swiftly shifting to a nighttime change of watch aboard the vessel.
So many elements in film-making have become so dependably fine—cinematography, editing, production design—that by now only the exceptions are surprising. Screenwriting is a great deal more variable: the good work of the designers and others is often wasted on trash. Acting, however, is less variable, because most film scripts don't demand much more than verisimilitude from the cast, and many film actors, especially those with salable personalities, are skilled in what might be called behaving—without much distinction between what is on camera and what is off.
The Guys (Focus) and The Good Thief (Fox Searchlight) Temptation for a writer lurks behind catastrophe. Whenever something dreadful happens in the political world, writers are tempted to respond. When Hitler appears, when the atomic bomb makes its double debut, some playwrights and novelists are impelled to respond in their art. Film writers are not immune, though for intrinsic reasons of their medium, their response is not so quickly apparent. The impulse of these writers is more than understandable: the lack of it would be moribund.
They decided to keep the French title on Cet Amour-La, which turns out to be a sound idea for two reasons. First, the subject is Marguerite Duras, more specifically the last years, the last love, of this thoroughly French novelist, essayist, film writer, and director. That last affair is so like a novel Duras might have written that a translated title might have jarred--just as Hiroshima Mon Amour, made from a Duras screenplay, fits rightly under its Gallic cap.This screenplay by Josee Dayan comes from an autobiographical novel by Yann Andrea, Duras's young lover in that last affair.
In the August 9, 1922 issue of this magazine, Frances Taylor Patterson wrote: "In a day of emotional and artistic deliquescence on the screen, a picture with the fresh strength and pictorial promise of Nanook of the North is in the nature of Revelation." The screen has recurrently deliquesced since then, and once again comes a film from the north to remind us of that fact by its revelation of strength. Robert J.