Wednesday, September 24, 2008


I knew a guy at high school called Paul, but for some reason everybody called him ‘Duck’. It was one of those nicknames whose genesis was lost in the mists of whatever else it is you spend your teenage years doing. I remember going to see ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ (an extremely well-crafted but morally hollow film, to my mind) in 1989 at East Belfast’s Strand Cinema, which Van Morrison is photographed beside for the inlay cover art of ‘The Healing Game’ album, and where I saw more of the formative films of my 15th/16th/and 17th years than anywhere else. Duck came into the theatre just as the audience was almost fully seated, and so we called out to him: ‘DUCK!’ A few dozen people did.

That serves merely as a circuitous way into talking a little about a film I saw last night, called ‘Duck’, and for good reason. It’s about a man and a duck. The man is a widower, and earlier lost his son. The movie’s version of the US is a soulless place in which every tree is being colonised by shopping malls, and where psychiatrists mistake innocence for mental illness. The man, played by Philip Baker Hall, an actor who can genuinely be called ‘great’, not least because I usually feel exhilarated any time I see him, wanders around accompanied by the eponymous creature, a gorgeous goose, looking for the ocean. The movie doesn’t really hold together - it’s a fable whose critique of the breakdown of community is not exactly subtle or nuanced; but it’s absolutely worth watching for the central performance. Hall is so beguiling and sympathetic that he manages to invest the duck itself with a personality. It is easy to buy into their relationship, and not for a second - until after the film was over - did I think about the central absurdity and slightness of this film.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lakeview Terrace

The Number One film at the US box office this past weekend is 'Lakeview Terrace', Neil La Bute's somewhat thoughtful thriller in which an LAPD officer harasses his new neighbors; the cop is black, the neighbors are an inter-racial couple. If the ethnic identities were switched, the film might never have been made; and if it had, would have been a far less interesting film – it would have been a simplistic story about a white supremacist and the battle for people to be allowed to live in peace. Instead, 'Lakeview Terrace' aims to wrong-foot the audience into re-considering our preconceptions, and succeeds most of the time.

I planned to write a post here about the film, and how it's well photographed and mounted with imagination, and how Patrick Wilson is turning into my favourite same-generation-as-me actor, and how Samuel L Jackson reminds us of how he really can bring it when he's working for more than just a paycheck, and the exploration of racial tension, the psychological terrain of the police officer, the power dynamics in marriages when one set of in-laws is wealthy, and the simple concept of how an obsession with private property may be at the core of the breakdown of community (good fences in this film not only fail to make good neighbors, but become a tool for concealing the sinister agenda of the bloke next door).

I was going to write about how Neil La Bute's films (see 'In the Company of Men', 'Your Friends and Neighbors' and even the misbegotten remake of 'The Wicker Man') create a beguiling mood that is rare in contemporary mainstream cinema, and that he is at least trying to say something meaningful, even if the possible benefit of his purpose has to battle to float above the apparently a priori cynicism that is his modus operandi (two Latin phrases in one sentence might be the kind of thing that would impress a character in one of his movies). I was going to write about how, for the first hour or so, I felt close to compelled by 'Lakeview Terrace', and thought it had the potential to be one of the best films I've seen this year; before it turned into less than the sum of its parts, becoming ultimately a conventional thriller.

I was going to write about all of this, when I stumbled across a news item suggesting that Val Kilmer is considering running for Governor of New Mexico in 2010. And it made me wonder if there were a connection between the La Bute film (which wants to be taken seriously as a work of political fiction) and the small but significant tendency of Hollywood actors to think they are qualified to run states because they once wore a superhero cape. That thought didn't stick around long enough for me to be too preoccupied – and so I returned to reflecting on 'Lakeview Terrace'. I'm not quite sure what to make of it other than to say it's a well-made film, feels realistic (for part of its running time), but eventually trades its pretensions to being a serious intelligent work in exchange for the cheap thrill of an utterly conventional ending. In the clich├ęd climax, the film-makers may be critiquing the trigger-happy culture of the LAPD, or they may simply be giving the audience the ending they think they want. It's not clear. And in a sense it doesn't really matter, because the film is raising important questions that will only ever be answered by us out there in the dark. What does it mean to be a good neighbor? What lies at the core of prejudice? How important is home ownership to contemporary identity? How is it possible to de-escalate conflict when one of the parties seems simply irrational? (I might also add the following question: Why is the MPAA giving PG-13 ratings to more and more adult films these days?)