The following conversation took place in my house the other day: “Do you want to see Déjà Vu?” “No, I’ve seen it already.”

If it hadn’t been accidental, it would have been a knee-slapper. But never mind that: in my head it led on to further thoughts and wisdoms. Haven’t we (I mused the next day in the bath, in front of the shaving mirror, walking the dog) seen every film before? Haven’t we seen it even before we, so to speak, see it? Isn’t all cinema – all popular cinema – the art of massaging memory rather than minting novelty?

Here are Freedom Writers, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and The Illusionist. Each rises, rattling its chains, from an army of ghostly templates. Each takes as read that we know the relevant narrative or sub-generic ground rules. And we do, because we have matriculated in them already, long ago, possibly (it sometimes Jungianly seems) before we were born.

Freedom Writers is the archetypal movie tale of the teacher in a distressed and violent urban area who must do a Custer’s last stand each day in front of the blackboard. “Sir, please sir, (or in this case ‘Miss’), may I shoot you?” “Miss, please miss, may I take the wheels off your car, sell them for crack and then burn the remaining bodywork?” Hilary Swank boldly goes where Sidney Poitier, Sandy Dennis and Michelle Pfeiffer went before, outmanoeuvred by the little perishers until the “eureka” moment when she finds the right strategy.

In Richard LaGravenese’s film, based on the diaries of a real high school’s pupils and the writings of their teacher Erin Gruwell, this has to do with the Holocaust and handing out free copies of The Diary of Anne Frank. (Wish I’d thought of that during my strife-torn teaching spell at Wallington Grammar.)

If a six-foot Afro-American teenage bruiser from Long Beach California can identify with a Dutch girl hiding in an attic, there is hope for us all. Likewise, if a young schoolmarm wearing million-dollar outfits from Rodeo Drive, à la Swank, can escape unravished in a school resembling open day at Alcatraz, either she has found the philosopher’s stone of teaching or the Tinseltown Education Board knows that ugly truths must appear glamorously dressed for the popcorn crowd. If the film were not based on a true story, we wouldn’t believe a frame. Or perhaps we would accept it as the umpteenth pressing of a folk tale true for the imagination if not for the reality enforcers.

Dito Montiel wrote and directed A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints from his own memoir of growing up in Queens. There is a Little Italy in every New York borough, hence the film’s resemblance to Mean Streets, A Bronx Tale, The Godfather: Part II (it should be so lucky) and every movie in which mini-Capones or pocket Lucianos skitter round the neighbourhood with their scams, scamperies and appoggiatura-cadenced exclamations.

A framing device has Robert Downey revisiting the home turf as grown-up Dito, played in flashback by Shia LaBoeuf. The worst of the film is Downey’s Memory Lane schtick, clunky and ponderous. The best is Montiel’s way of tearing the style-book into confetti in boyhood scenes, scattering it over the wedding of reality to wishful memory distortion. Quick cutting, overlapping dialogue and giddy captions or graphics – in some shots giant script-pages are spread across the screen – show a director realising that cliché is not far off, so novelty had better act as showman and bouncer. Meanwhile characterisation runs up and down the aisles trying to make an impression. LaBoeuf and his young co-stars (Melonie Diaz, Channing Tatum, Martin Compston) often succeed, though the best scene is LaBoeuf’s showdown with his dad (Chazz Palminteri), a scorching mini-drama of parental tyranny going head-to-head with the will to emotional enfranchisement.

The Illusionist pulls rabbits from hats, or performs equivalent conjuring tricks, heedless of the number of previous times we have seen fluffy rodents emerge from toppers. Each time, of course, if well enough done, it is a virgin birth. And each time we know what to do as spectator-participants to try to keep the experience new: slap the rabbit on the rear, make it shriek, then cut its umbilical cord to cinematic precedence.

That way we pretend for as long as possible that The Illusionist is not a reprise of The Prestige or sloppy seconds of Bergman’s The Magician, even though it really is. Edward Norton in a beard and Rufus Sewell in imperial face-stubble play the magic-maker and monarch, respectively, in a tale of murder most convoluted. Set in old Vienna with prop-trunk Austrian accents – surely unnecessary when everyone is in the same “foreign” country? – it glooms along until the brief lightning flash of its final plot surprise. Until then, the lesson is that although every film is the same as every other, an artist’s job is to disguise the fact. If he doesn’t, we have the same sensation as when the car we are driving without a map reaches the same spot we passed 50 miles before. Inevitable result: we slam on the brakes, scream at the family, abandon the Volvo and hail a taxi.

We want to do all those things during Ghost Rider. Nicolas Cage, an actor almost gothic with overuse, a star whose name is an anagram of “send in the clones” (well, almost), a performer who in a postmodern version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol would play the Ghost of Déjà Vu, does his sepulchral-voiced Lenten-jawed stuff yet again, as the hero of this Marvel Comics makeover.

An avenging stunt cyclist who lost his dad in a deal with Death (Peter Fonda), “Johnny Blaze” is condemned to walk the Earth – or bike it – as a lost soul capable of turning into a demon, when necessary, with fiery hands and a blazing skull-head. Ghost Rider runs out of oomph very swiftly, helped to a standstill by a cast (Cage, Fonda, Wes Bentley, Sam Elliott) encouraged to talk v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, like 78rpm records when someone has forgotten to keep working the wind-up.

Happy news! Britain’s National Film Theatre launches part two of its season Out of the Shadows: 50 Cinematic Masterpieces. This is an excuse – if we need one – to show classics such as Bergman’s Persona, Bresson’s Au Hasard, Balthasar, Rohmer’s Ma Nuit Chez Maud and Herzog’s Land of Silence and Darkness. That way, March can come in like a lion on London’s South Bank, even while it resembles warmed-over mutton everywhere else.

Get alerts on Michelle Pfeiffer when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article