2005 Project Batch 7: The Constant Gardener, The Descent, and The Squid and the Whale


The 2005 Project continues with two disappointments, and a movie that revealed itself to be much more meaningful to my life than I remembered.

ConstantGardenerPosterThe Constant Gardener (Directed by Fernando Meirelles)

Fernando Meirelles’s style of filmmaking has gotten very tired in very little time. I mean, it has been ten years, but we still have shaky, faux-documentary style thrillers, but in comparison to more precise directors like Michael Mann and Paul Greengrass, Meirelles seems like an amatuer. The reason? There is a lot of cutting, a lot of shaking, a lot of coverage, a lot of angles, but the saturation of images doesn’t seem to be saying much at all.

This is not to say that there aren’t good things about ‘The Constant Gardener’. It’s cinematography is messy and incongruent, but the editing (by Claire Simpson), creates some interesting rhythms. Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz are at the top of their game in the lead roles of a couple trapped in the middle of a pharmaceutical conspiracy. As a matter of fact, the nature of the relationship (why does Weisz’s fierce activist marry Fiennes’s cowardly diplomat) is a bigger and more interesting mystery than the one suggested by the plot. We all know pharmaceutical companies are bad, we don’t need the fact to be revealed in a three-act structure.

In a way, ‘The Constant Gardener’ embarks in a doomed mission. It is the type of movie that has an agreeable, humane, message, but fails in execution. This is the problem of being (or at least looking like) an “important” movie. You can’t be imperfect, you can’t be silly. If you are, then you’re less “important”, and you fail. ‘The Constant Gardener’ doesn’t exactly fail. But it is unsubtle in a way that doesn’t help yet another movie about African suffering that has a straight white male as its protagonist.

descentposterThe Descent (Directed by Neil Marshall)

By and large, horror movies are not my thing. At least not in the traditional definition of the genre. I appreciate movies that succeed at being particularly haunting, but if we’re talking straight-up horror, well, I tend to only like those if they are particularly fun (like Drag Me to Hell), or extremely well-made (like last year’s The Babadook). Neil Marshall’s ‘The Descent’, while not without merit, is neither of those things.

‘The Descent’ was widely praised upon its release, so why don’t I like it? I think it’s because I’m a big character guy, and horror characters, for some reason, tend to be bland and forgettable (maybe so we won’t miss them when they die?). The women of ‘The Descent’ are a decent try at making interesting, psychologically complex characters, but they don’t do it for me. The first part of the movie, before the “adventure” begins, is insipid both in style and in substance. Once we get into the cave, the stage is set for jump-scares and gory violence. There are some decent sequences here, but at the end of the day, I just don’t care.

On a more positive note, what does ‘The Descent’ get right? The feeling of claustrophobia. The scariest parts of the movie are not when the Gollum-like creatures attack, but when the cave starts to crumble on top of our protagonists. Call me crazy, but if your idea of fun is to go into a deadly narrow cave, then I think you probably deserve to die in there.

squidandthewhaleposterThe Squid and the Whale (Directed by Noah Baumbach)

I saw this for the first time in early 2006, I kind of loved it, but I couldn’t really figure out why. I was still a very impressionable movie watcher, and a couple of elements jumped out and stayed with me ever since. Watching it again for the first time, removed (at least a little bit) from my teenage years, turns out to be revealing. I see a lot of myself, and my life, in this movie. The things that happen here are a little nastier than my own experience (or at least that’s what I like to believe), but there is enormous, honest truth in ‘The Squid and the Whale’.

Setting the more personal stuff aside, the more I watch from Noah Baumbach, the more I’m impressed and interested in him as a director. He made this one after co-writing The Life Aquatic, and it was produced by Wes Anderson. You can see some of the influence in the dialogue, but unlike Anderson’s calculated surfaces, ‘The Squid and the Whale’ has a guttural sense of immediacy (maybe influenced by Cassavetes?). The movie it reminded me the most of, is last year’s Listen Up Philip by Alex Ross Perry, another fascinating director.

I’m afraid I can’t write much more about ‘The Squid and the Whale’ (maybe I’ll try in the future). But I think it is a hilarious movie, often infuriating, touching. Some of the things that happen here, and some of the characters’ points of view make me feel particularly uncomfortable, but only because I can see myself in them. This might be too personal a reason to like a movie, but if what we search in movies is “truth”, then this is a successful movie.

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