Now that the Golden Globes are done and we await the Oscars, it’s the shoulder season, a time when Hollywood dumps the movies deemed not quite good enough to release in time for Academy consideration. This weekend we’ve got three pictures based on true stories, though in each case stagy melodrama upstages the truth. Two of them feature heroic scientists—Extraordinary Measures and Creation—and the third, The Last Station (opening in Toronto only this week) tracks the final days of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. But there’s another, smaller film opening in limited release (Toronto only for now) that I cannot recommend too highly—Petropolis: Aerial View of the Alberta Tar Sands, by Canadian filmmaker Peter Mettler. This mesmerizing documentary reveals Canada’s most controversial natural resources as it’s never been seen. In the tradition of Edward Burtynsky, it finds a terrible beauty in grand visions of environmental devastation. It’s a must see film. But first the mainstream choices:
What ever happened to Harrison Ford? This A-list heavyweight has not aged gracefully, and I’m not referring to his looks. Ford seems to be in fine physical shape, and still game to play the battered action hero, as he did in the most recent Indiana Jones sequel. But as an actor he seems to have atrophied. That righteous stare of paranoid intensity, which might have been suitable for The Fugitive, has become a stock gesture, and seems both contrived and inappropriate for his latest role, as a maverick research scientist in Extraordinary Measures.
Similiar to Lorenzo’s Oil, but not as good, Extraordinary Measures is a drama about the race for a medical cure in which the fate of the protagonist’s kids hangs in the balance. It’s based on a book by Pulitizer-Prize-winning author Getta Anand’s book, The Cure: How a Father Raised $100 Million – and Bucked the Medical Establishment – in a Quest to Save His Children. The film tells the story of how John Crowley (Brendan Fraser) takes a huge risk by quitting his well-paying job to team up with a scientist (Ford) to find a cure for a fatal disease afflicting two of Crowley’s three children. It’s a fascinating tale. And as with Lorenzo’s Oil, the most thrilling moments are the stuff of science. But thanks to an over-torqued script, and the less-than-subtle direction of Tom Vaughan (What Happens in Vegas), dramatic contrivance tends to get in the way of a good story.
Fraser is the protagonist and plays the lead, but he’s clearly not the star, which poses a problem. Ford, who executive-produced the film, throws the balance of the drama off-kilter with his over-written part as the curmudgeonly scientist with a heart of gold—the renegade who blares ’70s rock in the lab and hates the pharmaceutical suits with such a passion that he jeopardizes the project, yet comes through heroically in the end. Ford’s character, Dr. Stonehill, is actually a composite of several real-life scientists, and he comes across that way, as one of those vanity creations that seems custom-designed for the star, with a luxurious repertoire of behavioral tics. And you have to wonder why this academic hermit, who commutes between the lab and the local pub, looks so pumped in his form-fitting t-shirts—less like a lab rat than a movie star who assiduously keeps himself toned for the next lead role. Ford could take a lesson in shape-shifting from Matt Damon in The Informant. Always the ex-carpenter, Harrison likes to talk about how he’s a team player and how everything he does is in the service of the story. His talk-show mantra is that, even though he’s a star, he doesn’t act like one. Maybe that was once the case. But not here.
Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly in ‘Creation’
This picture served as the underwhelming opening gala at last fall’s Toronto International Festival—which usually opens with a Canadian movie—and I’m still puzzled as to why the festival chose it. It certainly looks good on paper. It’s a movie about Charles Darwin that’s nicely timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of his game-changing book, Origin of the Species. It’s a movie about Big Ideas at a time when a raging debate between creationism and evolution, and faith vs. reason, has become hugely important, especially in America. And it boasts a couple of strong actors who are also stars, though not of the super-nova variety—Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, who partnered for A Beautiful Mind, are once again playing the role they play in real life: husband and wife.
But Creation is not half as smart as it pretends to be. It’s the kind of movie that tells you what to think, and feel, every step of the way. Though it starts out with great promise.
British director Jon Amiel succeeds in illustrating Darwin’s evolutionary theories with lovely time-lapse shots of natural decay and growth. The man is struggling to complete The Origin of the Species, but he’s wracked by guilt on two fronts—because he’s breaking Christian creationist taboo and he’s haunted by the death of his young daughter, Annie. Midway through, the drama gets stalled in a rut of psychotherapeutic angst, another modern notion that Darwin apparently helped discover. And he spends an inordinate amount of time talking to his daughter’s ghost, until he finally blasts through his torpor, and restores his failing health, by confronting his demons (and his wife) to purge his guilt. Intellectually, this may be intriguing stuff. But dramatically, it gets turgid. You just don’t care what happens next. And Connelly is squandered. The bulk of her performance is reserved until the final act, when it suddenly has to rev into full-blown domestic melodrama. Too little too late.
The Last Station
Christopher Plummer is getting no end of accolades for chewing the scenery in this stodgy melodrama about Tolstoy’s final days. But The Last Station is one of those movies you watch for the performances, as you become increasingly dismayed that the movie will never live up to the talent of the cast. The cast is formidable. Plummer is supported by a raging Helen Mirren as Sofya, his long-suffering wife, muse and secretary—a woman who has been faithfully at his side for 50 years and written out War and Peace by hand, six times. Paul Giamatti is cast as the author’s diabolical disciple, Chertkov, who is conniving to disinherit the Tolstoy family by leaving his literary estate to the Russian people. And James McAvoy plays a gullible young recruit who becomes the author’s assistant, and Chertkov’s pawn, while falling in love with a lovely free spirit who has advanced ideas about sex and love (Kerry Condon).
Like Creation, this is a high-minded movie about a war of ideas. It pits the false romance of idealism against the true romance of love. But the moral lines are drawn so schematically that the characters become puppets of the script, despite the actors’ best efforts. Giamatti virtually sprouts horns in conveying the pre-Stalinist evil of bureaucratic collectivism. Plummer and Mirren are lost in a conflagration of Acting. And when the sideshow of young love between McAvoy and Condon becomes such a welcome distraction you begin to wish it were the main event, there’s something amiss.
Canadian director Peter Mettler, like Errol Morris, is a documentary filmmaker who likes to seduce us with metaphysical, even when he’s drawing our attention to astounding fact. Here Mettler, who served as cinematographer on Manufactured Landscapes, picks up where Edward Burtynsky left off, exploring the esthetics of havoc with a bird’s-eye view of industrial devastation. Running just 43 minutes, Petropolis is not a feature—but it has epic sweep. It’s a spectacle of terrifying beauty that takes us to a place that should, by now, be familiar to us. We’ve all heard about the Tar Sands, read about them, seen glimpses of them on the news. But until now, no one has shown them to us on an appropriate scale. Mettler’s aerial view begins at the periphery, in a landscape of pristine forest, and as we approach the scene of the crime in silence, the suspense is palpable. The film unfolds as a revelation that inspires disbelief. We look down on a toxic landscape of myriad earth tones, a canvas that’s been gouged and scraped and scumbled as if by a giant palette knife. Pollution has never looked so pretty. Iridescent tailing ponds shimmer with chemicals, a macabre canvas of oil and water. The land is face-peeled and repainted with swirls of jade and topaz, as succumbing to a grotesque facelift. Even the armadas of giant earth-moving machines look surreal in their Crayola colours. Petropolis is a motion picture quite unlike anything we’ve seen, a monumental oil-painting-in-progress. It has to be seen to be believed, and even then you wonder: what the hell was that?