Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The middling career of Lasse Hallstrom

I owe a lot to Lasse Hallstrom.

Come to think of it, I owe a lot to Bryan Williams as well.

Bryan Williams was the friend who introduced me to Hallstrom's My Life as a Dog back in 1987, when the 1985 Swedish film finally got its U.S. release. Bryan was a pretty convincing fellow, as he got a bunch of people weaned on the likes of Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Back to the Future not only to go to My Life as a Dog, but to actually get excited about having loved it.

It seems amazing that I may be able to credit this movie with both of these things, but My Life as a Dog may have been both the first foreign film I'd ever seen (or at least chosen to see), and the first independent-minded film -- in other words, one as much about people and their relationships as about explosions and time travel. I didn't turn 14 until October of 1987, so I was probably only 13 years old when I saw the movie. So yeah, I hadn't seen anything like it -- and I liked what I was seeing.

Considering what's happened with me -- that I have become a full-fledged lover of all types of movies, not just genre films, and have created a (fledgling) career out of that love -- the importance of this movie becomes clear. It was like my gateway drug into a much richer tableau of cinematic possibilities.

Well, it's been a long, long time since My Life as a Dog. And the years have been only superficially kind to its director.

Lasse Hallstrom has been as prolific as anyone in Hollywood, the place he came immediately after Dog became a hit. But The Hundred-Foot Journey, releasing later this week in the U.S. and next week in Australia, marks about his 12th film in a row I haven't wanted to see.

I know it's foolhardy to try to track the course of people's careers from just a couple projects, and especially from just one project. That's because they often have to pay their dues on something entirely different from what they actually want to do. Over the course of a career, the kind of filmmaker they are starts to materialize.

Well, for Hallstrom, it's been a reverse type of materialization. When he was still in Sweden, we saw the type of movie he should want to aspire to make. It's the movies he's made from the success of that movie that have been the director-for-hire schlock, the type that someone should have to make in their due-paying, ascendant stage.

Shall we take a quick look at his films to see what I'm talking about?

Once Around (1991) - Hallstrom's first Hollywood movie is not something I've seen, even though you'd think I might have when I was still high off My Life as a Dog. But I can pronounce judgment on the type of movie it is -- a middle-of-the-road family dramedy starring Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter and Danny Aiello. Not a "lured by the bright lights of Hollywood" type of movie.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) - Hallstrom righted the ship with this coming-of-age story bursting with decidedly eccentric characters, including a mentally disabled teen and his 800-pound mother. I only saw this for the first time within the past five years and was taken with it. Hey, I didn't say that every film Hallstrom has made has been lackluster.

Something to Talk About (1995) - Oops, wrong step again. This is another one I haven't seen, but the poster features the big smiling mugs of Dennis Quaid and Julia Roberts. I like both actors, but this does not seem worthy of their talents -- nor his.

The Cider House Rules (1999) - I'm wondering if American studios are starting to get the idea that Hallstrom is not all he's cracked up to be, because it's another four years before he makes his next movie. However, it does get nominated for best picture, and Hallstrom gets a nod for best director. Thus begins Hallstrom's era of dull prestige pictures. (Look, Cider House is okay, but do you really ever think about it?)

Chocolat (2000) - On the strength of the success of Cider House (or more likely just the peculiarities of work schedules), Hallstrom was back the very next year with a second straight best picture nominee, this one far more unlikely than the previous year's -- not because it was not what the Academy usually goes for, but because it read to me as such obvious fluff. Hallstrom was not among the directing nominees this time, and rightly so.

The Shipping News (2001) - Clearly on a hot streak, Hallstrom came back again the next year with his best film since Grape. This one did not receive the accolades of his previous two efforts, which only goes to show you that the Academy is frequently clueless on such things. (Not that The Shipping News should have earned a best picture nomination, but that the previous two should not have.)

An Unfinished Life (2005) - Speaking of the peculiarities of work schedules, Hallstrom did not have another feature released for four years ... but then had two released in 2005. The first is this Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman starrer, which was almost totally unheralded despite being pretty good.

Casanova (2005) - The second finds him back in what I would call "Chocolat mode." I didn't see Casanova, a star vehicle for Heath Ledger, but it seems both frothy and continental ... like Chocolat. No thanks.

The Hoax (2006) - This seems like the least Hallstrom-like movie on his filmography, a Richard Gere vehicle about a guy who (erroneously) claimed to have helped Howard Hughes write an autobiography before he died. It's not bad, but not memorable either.

Hachi: A Dog's Tale (2009) - Teaming up with Gere again, Hallstrom makes what I assume to be a full-on dive into deep sentimentality. That's always been an undercurrent in his work, but here rises to the surface with a movie appropriate for kids, about a dog. Of course, the two previous sentences are pure speculation, because I have not actually seen Hachi.

Dear John (2010) - And here begins the most concerning phase of Hallstrom's career, if you are a person of a particular anti-teen mindset. He directs the first of two Nicholas Sparks adaptations (so far), this one starring Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum. Even as apparently alarming as this turn is, I found this to be a decent movie.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011) - Another movie I haven't seen, Salmon Fishing could function as the prototypical Hallstrom movie -- a warm, play-it-safe romance with a hint of international flavor. That said, Emily Blunt is in this movie, so it is probably good.

The Hypnotist (2012) - Hallstrom returns to Sweden! Which is why I have not heard of this movie until this very moment. It does star Lena Olin, though.

Safe Haven (2013) - And here's that second Sparks adaptation. Here, though, my anti-Sparks bluster loses even more steam, as I was an unabashed fan of this. It got to me. What can I say, I can be a sap. (Which may be why I've seen such a high percentage of Hallstrom's movies.)

Which brings us to the movie du jour, which is probably some kind of mashup of Chocolat and Salmon Fishing, with a starring turn from Helen Mirren to give it a tincture of artistic credibility.

So it's not a terrible career -- that's not what I said. I just said it was middling. Which is not what I expected from Hallstrom when I saw My Life as a Dog.

What I don't know is whether Hallstrom got comfortable with the way he was being pigeonholed, and just went with the flow, or if he really wanted to make movies like this -- essentially, director-for-hire movies that don't seem to demonstrate any kind of personal vision. My Life as a Dog was indeed his vision, as he both wrote the adapted screenplay and directed. (I'm astonished to learn that he was actually nominated for best director -- that's pretty unusual for a foreign language film.) How many times has he had a writing credit since then? Only once, with that Swedish film The Hypnotist from two years ago.

Yet studios clearly think that the Lasse Hallstrom brand represents something to audiences -- if only a sense of adult contemporary cinematic comfort food. In the ads I've been seeing for The Hundred-Foot Journey while watching shows on Hulu, the words "directed by Lasse Hallstrom" are spoken by the announcer. So he has carved out a niche for himself as a purveyor of a certain kind of ... something.

It's just not the something I thought it would be when my mind was awakened to the possibilities of world cinema, way back in the mid-1980s.

What this discussion is begging for is a rewatch of My Life as a Dog, which I have only seen that one time, or possibly one more time within a year of that. Is it possible I'm misremembering, and therefore overstating, how good it really was? And therefore, how much Hallstrom has "strayed from the path" in the ensuing three decades?

Well, that exercise is destined to go unrealized. My Life is a Dog is not streaming on Netflix, but what's more, it appears to have entirely disappeared from existence. When I went just now to the useful site www.canistream.it, I discovered that the movie is "not available for streaming, rental or purchase." Poof! It's gone.

Maybe Hallstrom himself wiped out all the extant copies, so we aren't reminded of just what he could have become.

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