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2 Stars Movies

Australia is Baz Luhrmann’s Gone With the Wind

Strictly speaking, Baz Luhrmann has made only one musical, the guilty pleasure Moulin Rouge (2001). But, last seen directing Puccini’s opera La bohème on Broadway, he can’t seem to resist the genre. Strictly Ballroom (1992), Romeo + Juliet (1996), and now Australia all incorporate key elements of the musical: exaggerated emoting, spectacle, and especially, songs. Australia directly quotes whole numbers from The Wizard of Oz, but is actually better described not as Luhrmann’s Oz but as his Gone With the Wind. Which is to say, it’s an overlong costume drama faintly condescending towards its non-white characters and preoccupied with the epic spectacle of cities burning during wartime.

Australia‘s biggest flaw is structural, being essentially two discrete movies featuring the same characters. Imagine a double feature of a movie and its sequel, smashed together into one. The first half concerns the Australian market for cattle needed to support the Allies’ war effort. Englishwoman Lady Ashley (Nicole Kidman – a native Aussie who even here has to affect an accent) owns a small ranch in the outback, and believes her absent husband is cheating on her. She travels down under to sell the land in order to pay down debt, but also to rid her husband of what she imagines to be his adulterous refuge. There, she learns he has been murdered by the monopolizing “King” Carney’s (Bryan Brown) henchman Neil Fletcher (David Wenham, Faramir in Lord of the Rings).

Nicole Kidman in Australia
Blast it! This war is a spot of bother.

She meets the hunky Drover (Hugh Jackman), a man whose name is his job, whose job is his name, and the sort of fictional Australian that actually says “Crikey” (q.v. Crocodile Dundee). Audience members interested in the beefcake factor will be delighted to see Jackman has built up his body to a size even bigger than for the Canadian mutant superhero Wolverine in three (soon to be four) X-Men films (although the neck-to-head ratio threatens to tip over into freakish territory). Lady Ashley also befriends the film’s narrator, the young “half-caste” boy Nullah (Brandon Walters). Nullah spent most of the movie thoroughly annoying the hell out of me as he shouts out the name “Drover! Yay Drover! Drover, Drover, Drover, yay!” over and over and over again. Ugh.

Nullah’s grandfather, a mystical Aboriginal known as King George (David Gulpilil), has been framed for Lord Ashley’s murder. He watches over Nullah from afar, and encourages him to become a storyteller. The fact that we are being told this story by a little boy to some degree explains and excuses the cast’s hammy mugging and how, on the whole, everyone seems to take death pretty well. After losing Lady Ashley’s husband and Nullah’s mother, our gang of heroes is only really upset by the death of Kipling Flynn (Jack Thompson), an alcoholic collaborating with Carney. They are moved perhaps because he is given a chance to redeem himself right in front of them (as opposed to, say, an innocent person dying offscreen).

Hugh Jackman in Australia
Crikey! Get along, little wallabies!

Lady Ashely finds she can make more money by tending the ranch and selling its cattle. Not to mention to effect a trifold moral victory: avenging her husband’s murder, beating the local monopoly, and righting a whole host of injustices made against the little boy. Nullah’s white father sexually exploited and murdered his mother, and if that weren’t trouble enough, the state wishes to abduct her and “breed the black out of her.” Such was official Australian policy until the 1970s; for a much better film along these themes see Phillip Noyce’s hugely affecting Rabbit Proof Fence (2002).

All this fuss and to-do is largely resolved and winds down about 1 hour and forty minutes in, the length of a typical movie. But Australia is no typical movie, and has about another hour and half to go. The happy surrogate family living together on the ranch must work itself all the way back up into an all-new conflict: the return of the villainous Fletcher for his revenge. The turmoil of World War II is reduced to an arbitrary inconvenience to the characters as they fight to restore their new makeshift family.

The movie is full of not-always-convincing computer-generated spectacle like cattle stampedes and Japanese kamikaze attacks. But one fleeting little shot caught my eye and reminded me why I like Luhrmann so much. Watch for a brief moment as a velvet curtain drops, and Luhrmann invisibly cuts to the reverse angle. Classy and cool.

Categories
4 Stars Movies

Everyone is Just Visiting in Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor

The Visitor is the excellent sophomore effort from Thomas McCarthy, writer/director of The Station Agent (2003). The disgustingly talented McCarthy is also an accomplished actor, most recently appearing as a corporate espionage agent in Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity and as a plagiarizing journalist in The Wire.

Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins) is a political science professor at Connecticut College. The recent widower has regressed into a willfully lonely state, having lost his social graces and merely coasting in his responsibilities. In one small way at least, he does seem to be trying to grow a little as the movie begins. He runs through a number of piano instructors, futilely attempting to pick up the instrument at an age he is counseled to not even try. We later learn that this effort is facing backwards and grasping at the past; his late wife was a concert pianist.

Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in The Visitor
Richard Jenkins and Haaz Sleiman in The Visitor

Walter reluctantly travels to New York City to present a paper he nominally cowrote. He finds that his neglected vacant city apartment has been illegally sublet by a man named Ivan. This has the feel of a clue dropped for a future conflict – who is this Ivan with a key to his place, and will he return? But the plot point is never picked back up.

His unexpected tenants are a young couple barely making a living in New York City as artists: Tarek (Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian djembe player, and Zainab (Danai Jekesai Gurira), a Senegalese jewelry designer. The conscientious Walter balks at throwing them out and instead befriends them. Tarek begins to teach him to play the djembe, which he takes to more immediately than he ever did the piano.

My one complaint is that the character of Tarek is too sketchily drawn. He’s an implausibly decent and nice guy, without a hint of anything even remotely dark. Where are this very gregarious man’s other friends? Even the icy Zainab seems to have pals at the outdoors market where she sells her handmade jewelry.

Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass in The Visitor
Richard Jenkins and Hiam Abbass in The Visitor

The trio’s brief period of happiness is broken when Tarek is detained over a misunderstanding that incidentally reveals he and Zainab have both overstayed their visas. As Walter tries to aid his new friends, he finds himself plunged into the black hole of illegal immigration and Homeland Security. Tarek’s overprotective mother Mouma (Hiam Abbass) arrives, and Walter becomes her ambassador as they shuttle back and forth to a detention center in Queens (a borough the movie portrays unflatteringly). If finding new friends and an invigorating creative outlet had not already plunged Walter back into life, a budding romance with Mouma completes his new slate.

The Visitor and The Station Agent both manage to just barely skate the razor edge of sentimental cheese. Keeping the story of Walter’s emotional rehabilitation from being too corny is the worry that Walter is maybe a bit too desperate to ingratiate himself. Mouna understandably does a doubletake when she learns how much he is sacrificing to help Tarek, even though they have all known him for only a few days. Indeed, the perpetually nervous Zainab suspected his intentions from the very beginning — his aid would seem to be too good to be true were he not a man with a desperate hole in his life. Zainab’s distrust is the defensive stance of someone who knows she could be kicked out of her new home at any moment — xenophobia dressed up as combating terrorism. It’s all the more affecting when she finally melts and opens up to Walter and Mouna.

Any one of these characters could be the titular Visitor: Tarek, Zainab, and Mouna are, in the eyes of the Department of Homeland Security, at worst potential terrorists and at best temporary labor, no matter what they may have to offer. And Walter is a kind of visitor himself, with homes in Connecticut and New York but not truly living in either.

Categories
2 Stars Movies

Desperate to Be Liked: Julian Jarrold’s Brideshead Revisited

Director Julian Jarrold’s lavish period piece Brideshead Revisited trots the globe like a genteel James Bond adventure, visiting London, Venice, and Morocco, but especially the opulent Castle Howard. From the perspective of an ignoramus that hasn’t read Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, this compressed version of what I imagine to be a grander prose narrative doesn’t much fit the traditional structure of a feature-length movie. For instance, a major character disappears halfway through, and the internal contradiction of another’s stunted emotional life versus his grasping desires is not a very cinematic subject.

The voraciously ambitious Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) is the only child of a bitter, sarcastic, widowed father. He leaves his emotionally stifling home behind to study history at Oxford. His true aspirations are to be a painter, even though the chilly atheist does not seem to posses the rich emotional life of an artist. His middle-class London fashions divide him from his new upper-class peers, but from his first arrival on campus, he feels immediately drawn to the “sodomites.” As we learn more about Charles, we see that he does not so much share their sexuality as he is fascinated by their outwardly dramatic, emotionally honest natures, and considerable wealth – none of which he posesses. Curiously, Goode’s most recent screen appearance is as the similarly emotionless and sexually ambiguous Ozymandias in Watchmen.

Julia Flyte, Emma Thompson, Hayley Atwell, and Matthew Goode in Brideshead Revisited
“My loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires; I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those others we desperately wish to be”

One among Charles’ new friends is equally hungry to attach himself to him in return. The alcoholic, infantile Sebastian (Ben Whishaw) has more love for his teddy bear and housekeeper than for his extremely Roman Catholic mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson, whose role is not much more than a cameo, despite being featured front and center in the poster). Charles is awestruck by the wealth and opulence of Sebastian’s vast family estate Brideshead. As they pass through the chapel, the staunchly atheist Charles mimics his host and genuflects. Sebastian upbraids him, for not only is he from another social class altogether, worse, he is not Catholic. Charles first exposes the essential nature of his character when he replies that he was “just trying to fit in.”

But just as Charles’ cold home was defined by an unloving patriarch, Brideshead is blanketed by Lady Marchmain’s oppressive miasma of Catholic guilt. Lord Marchmain (Michael Gambon) escaped by decamping to Venice, where Catholics are a bit more liberal: they live their lives as they wish, and simply confess their sins away when necessary. At first, it seems only Lord Marchmain’s mistress Cara (Greta Scacchi) understands the situation: this homosexual dalliance is just a phase for Charles, but Sebastian is truly in love with him.

We later learn that Lady Marchmain, whom one might assume would be blinkered by her pious faith, is fully aware of her son’s pain. She also gives an even more astute analysis of what drives Charles to attach himself to the family: “You’re so desperate to be liked, Charles.”

Matthew Goode, Hayley Atwell, and Ben Whishaw in Brideshead Revisited
“Drinking is not a hobby, Sebastian.”

Charles is able to psychoanalyze himself in the end: “did I want too much?” All his actions are driven by desire: for the affections of the Oxford gay clique, to reside in Brideshead, to marry Sebastian’s sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), and to be praised by high society as a painter. But Charles is icily detached, with a notable lack of emotion and empathy. He calmly divorces his wife offscreen, in order to marry Julia and become lord of Brideshead.

But as her family gives the sacrament of last rites to Lord Marchmain against his wishes, she perceives a miracle as he relents and reaccepts his faith in his final moments. Her own faith is rekindled and she rejects Charles. In the end, his actions have marked the final generation of the family, and that the desirous manse will be left to no one.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Kate Winslett evokes emotional illiteracy in Stephen Daldry’s The Reader

Director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot), producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, and screenwriter David Hare’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader examines evolving notions of German postwar guilt and culpability.

Unfolding across three distinct time periods (1958, 1966, and 1995), The Reader hinges on a significant reveal in its middle that recasts previously seen events. This is not to compare it to more infamous examples of stunt plotting like Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, both easier to introduce without spoiling their big reveals: Brad Pitt and Edward Norton beat each other up for fun! Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis investigate ghosts! Without its crucial piece of information revealed midway through, one would be forced to describe The Reader as merely a story about a young man who has an affair with an older woman.

In 1958 Germany, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) has a summer-long affair with a 36-year-old stranger, Hanna (Kate Winslet). For him, the relationship is heatedly emotional and erotic, but for the strangely dispassionate woman it seems to be about fulfilling some unknown need or hunger that he (or the audience, yet) doesn’t understand. Her sexual advances are sudden and blunt, and he doesn’t even learn her name until their third assignation.

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The Reader
It says right here in our contract that we have to film a half dozen sex scenes…

She bathes him harshly and dispassionately, certainly not as a lover, or even a mother would her child. Hanna repeatedly reinforces their age differential by insisting on calling him “kid,” but reverses traditional age roles by having him read to her. As the summer passes, she more overtly trades sex for reading. The highly regimented Hanna has excelled at her job of selling bus tickets, and faces a promotion. We don’t yet know why, but she doesn’t want to stand out. She abruptly leaves town, cutting off the affair.

In 1966, Michael (still played by Kross) is in law school. As part of a seminar studying the Holocaust, he attends the trial of several accused concentration camp guards, one of whom turns out to be Hanna. Despite managing to hide in plain sight for years, she now unapologetically tells the truth, seemingly unaware of how doing so indicts herself. Michael is horrified to learn that what she calls her “job” was to be a guard at the most infamous of all evil places on earth: Auschwitz. The particular crime she is on trial for is locking hundreds of prisoners inside a burning church. Her self-serving cohorts attempt to pin her as the leader, in order to lessen their own culpability.

One seemingly minor anecdote is told about her habits at the camp: she chose a few young women to feed and protect. The prisoners suspected her of being a lesbian, an exploitation they could understand, but in fact she only asked that they read aloud to her. She would not protect her girls forever; when one met their death, she would simply select another girl. This anecdote is understood by the court to be an inexplicable quirk of an evil person, a mere matter of character, but Michael realizes the truth: she was, and remains, illiterate.

Michael is forced to recast the meaning of their affair in his mind. In a way, he was also her captive, and she similarly used him for her literary edification (and not for, as his teenage mind would have fantasied, love, or at least sexual gratification). Was he somehow to her like the girls she chose in the camp to entertain her? Did she do so out of self-interest, or to give them temporary comfort before they died? Or some combination of the two, a kind of tradeoff?

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The Reader
Kate Winslet is shocked, shocked to learn there are naughty bits in Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

Hanna could absolve herself of at least one charge. By admitting her illiteracy, she could prove that she was not solely responsible for covering up the church incident. But she mystifyingly chooses to accept culpability rather than admit she can’t read. The mystery of the character is how anyone would be so ashamed of their illiteracy that they would effectively condemn themself to a lifetime prison sentence instead of the 3-4 years that her cohorts received.

Michael could help her case by coming forward, but does not. Is he protecting his privacy, or effectively choosing to punish her? Both? In 1995, Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes, looking and sounding more and more like Laurence Olivier) opts to give her a significant present from afar. He begins with cassette tapes of him reading, and later provides the tools to help her teach herself to read.

A key question is whether or not he has forgiven her for her crimes against humanity, not to mention those against him: breaking his heart and arguably sexually using him. Technically, Hanna is a pedophile. Such crimes are usually imagined as being perpetrated by men. Certainly, films aren’t made where a 15-year-old girl’s relationship with a hot 36 year old male might be seen as a sexual awakening.

But Michael is in fact damaged; as he grows into an adult, his ability to forge solid relationships (either romantically with women, or as a parent to his own daughter) is stunted. When he first met Hanna, he saw her as a sexy adult. But in prison she is reduced to a childlike state, learning to read like a little girl. When the adult Michael comes to visit her, it is he that is the adult and she the trembling dependent looking up to him.

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The Reader
This rare shot from the set of The Reader shows David Kross and Kate Winslet in costume.

Because The Reader is a movie, and movies star stars, and because Kate Winslett is gorgeous and frequently naked, one instinctively wants to sympathize with her character Hanna. But the fact of the matter is that Hanna is a monster. What makes the character interesting is that she evidently can’t see the enormity of what makes her, for lack of a better word, evil.

The eminently practical Hanna does not seem to be a woman of many passions. She even seems surprised at first that the young Michael might be attracted to her sexually. When we meet her, she spends her joyless life alone in a drab flat and mundane job selling bus tickets. We later learn that she approached her “responsibilities” at Auschwitz with the same rigidity. She baldly admits to the events and what she did, not even really hiding behind the standard excuse of just following orders. In her mind, she seems to have been acting out of duty and responsibility to execute (so to speak) the requirements of her job. Hanna is so madly rule-oriented that she equated the subjugation of her prisoners to being a kind of protective responsibility.

A total lack of remorse is a sign of a sociopath, or of someone who is psychologically protecting themselves from confronting what they have done. Whether she compartmentalized her emotions or didn’t have any to begin with, Hanna was able to function as a cog in a giant atrocity machine, and to live on dispassionately afterwards. She must not be alone, for countless people operated just like her, making the Holocaust possible.

Hanna is interesting to compare with costar Fiennes’ role as the Nazi commandant Amon Göth in Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Göth was tortured by his attraction to a Jewish woman that his rank (and German society at the time) dictated that he must view as less than human. He is an evil man who nevertheless seems more able than Hanna to faintly glimpse his depravity.

Ralph Fiennes in The Reader
Ralph Fiennes is depressed he’s not in any of The Reader‘s sex scenes.

Ron Rosenbaum took offense to the “Holocaust porn” aspects of both the novel and the film for Slate. Is the story “redemptive,” as Rosenbaum accuses? As I thought about the film more, I think that Hanna’s shame over her illiteracy was something to cling to, when she couldn’t grasp the enormity of her crimes. It was easier for her to allow herself to go to jail under the umbrella, in her own mind at least, of continuing to hide the much lesser of her two secrets. So, I don’t think the film and novel take the stance that illiteracy is a greater shame than enabling the Holocaust; but rather Hanna’s intellectual deficiency is emotionally easier for her to cling to than admit to the oblivious herd mentality that allowed her to rigidly follow the rules and help effect the Final Solution.

Rosenbaum also accuses the film of portraying ordinary Germans as being ignorant of the Holocaust. Perhaps Rosenbaum doesn’t recall the law school sequences in which Professor Rohl (Bruno Gantz), himself a camp survivor, holds a seminar with some of his best law students discussing German guilt and culpability. I found it interesting to consider the first generation of Germans (represented by Michael) that grew up after the war, surrounded by adults that lived through it and had varying degrees of involvement (active or passive). Some of the most reprehensible characters in the film (even more so than Hanna) are her comrades that deny that anything happened. The only character I can think of that may support Rosenbaum’s accusation is the war crimes judge presiding over Hanna’s case. He would have theoretically been in a position of power during the war, but is seen affecting outrage at Hanna’s crimes.

Personally, I found Hanna to be an interesting character, which is not the same as sympathetic. I would describe her as infantilized and not even really worthy of pity. My interpretation of the story is that Michael chose to punish her by allowing her to indict herself on the witness stand, but in her mind it was due to the far more palatable excuse of keeping the secret of her illiteracy. She avoided accepting her own war crimes in order to make it possible to live with herself. The adult Michael gifts her a belated education, which is not necessarily an act of kindness. Perhaps he believes that stimulating her intelligence and imagination might enable her to understand her guilt. If so, he utterly succeeds, for she kills herself. It’s ambiguous whether her suicide is about guilt or simply over her fear of functioning in society after decades in prison.

The biggest clue that the outwardly cold Hanna is even capable of having buried emotions and guilt is the fact that she is interested in books at all. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make logical sense that this dispassionate person who seduces and fucks with as little emotion as she sells bus tickets, works in a concentration camp, or allows hundreds of Jews to burn to death, would have a love for literature.


Must Read: Don’t Give an Oscar to The Reader by Ron Rosenbaum

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4 Stars Movies

On the Run from Johnny Law in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket

Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson’s feature debut Bottle Rocket is based on their 1992 short film of the same name. Like Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Bottle Rocket may not have turned the world upside down, but is now viewed as a key filmmaker’s ur text. His signature style is already fully present: meticulously constructed of primary colors, written in torrents of words, and shot perpendicularly against exacting mise-en-scène.

The Royal Tenebaums is the only of Anderson’s films to feature parents as featured characters throughout, but Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, and Bottle Rocket all concern misfit siblings with largely absent parents. Like the Tenenbaums and the Whitmans (of Darjeeling), the Adams brothers are privileged yet seem to possess nothing of their own.

James Caan and Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket
James Caan and Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket. “This seems like a nice soirée.”

Dignan (Owen Wilson) throws in his lot with local gangster Mr. Henry (James Caan), who proves to be both a bad boss and poor father figure. Dignan forms an amateur gang of sorts with brother Anthony (Luke Wilson) — an aimless young man suffering from self-diagnosed “exhaustion,” and their pushover friend Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) — of use mostly because he has access to a car. Every detail of Dignan’s grand scheme for his life is plotted out in the handwritten manifesto “75-Year Plan – Notes Re: Careers.” As he tells Anthony, “I think we both respond well to structure.”

Robert Musgrave, Owen Wilson, and Luke Wilson in Bottle Rocket
Robert Musgrave, Owen Wilson, and Luke Wilson in Bottle Rocket. “On the run from Johnny Law… ain’t no trip to Cleveland.”

They feel the urge to steal (from a chain book store, hilariously, and even from their own parents’ home), not so much for money itself but to enable their fantasy of living independently on the road. Their dream is that being on the lam would provide the excitement they imagine their lives lack. But Dignan’s precise vision of the future is disrupted at every turn. The most cataclysmic event of all is when the romantic Anthony becomes smitten with motel maid Inez (Lumi Cavazos), and he gives up most of their illgotten spoils to help her. Dignan’s own future hasn’t factored in love; eventually he realizes he must set off on his own to find his destiny.

Lumi Cavazos in Bottle Rocket
Lumi Cavazos in Bottle Rocket.

The 2007 Criterion Collection edition reprints a 1999 appreciation by producer James L. Brooks, in which he describes how the neophyte filmmakers had little notion of how movies are actually written and made, especially any aspect thereof involving creative compromise. Their first draft was reportedly so wordy that a simple table reading proved epic:

the longest entertainment known to man, beating Wagner’s Ring Cycle before we reached the halfway point of the reading. By the time we approached the last scene, all the water pitchers had been emptied, yet voices still rasped from overuse, and there were people in the room showing the physical signs of starvation.

James L. Brooks

The script was deemed unfilmable, beginning a long process of urging Anderson and Wilson to cut material they held dear, and they held everything dear. The movie still seemed doomed even after successfully shooting a workable script. When early cuts tested poorly before audiences, Brooks tried to console Anderson and Wilson by telling them that early feedback for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was also poor, but it was saved by the music and a memorable logo. Indeed, Brooks credits the score by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo for helping make the film work.

James Caan only worked on the film for three days, and still seems bemused by the whole thing. But the result has proven a cult classic, and launched the careers of not only Anderson but also the Wilson brothers. The Criterion Collection edition also includes Martin Scorcese’s 2000 appreciation from Esquire, in which he credits Anderson with a rare, true affection for his characters.

Dignan’s belief in his imperviousness is the flm’s “transcendent moment”: “they’ll never catch me, man, ’cause I’m fucking innocent.”

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1 Star Movies

There’s a Corruption in the Force in Gavin O’Connor’s Pride and Glory

Pride and Glory was one of the last New Line Cinema productions made while still a semi-autonomous company, before being eviscerated by parent company Warner Bros. in 2008. For the morbidly curious, Vanity Fair recently related the sad tale in its latest Hollywood issue. Disclaimer: I worked for New Line Cinema through its end times, but had absolutely nothing to do with actually making or marketing its movies, and nobody there cared what rank-and-file employees thought about the artistic merit of their product anyway.

For still undisclosed reasons, Pride and Glory was completed in 2006, but sat on the shelf for almost two years. Director Gavin O’Connor (Tumbleweeds) publicly blamed New Line (and co-head Bob Shaye in particular) for burying his movie. Stars Edward Norton and Colin Farrell also spoke out about it in the press, clearly disappointed but yet more understanding (perhaps these seasoned actors were more jaded, and unsurprised by studio machinations). New Line countered that the sliding release date was intended to avoid the lead actors’ competing projects from different studios. It was eventually scheduled for March 2008, but not actually released until late 2008.

Colin Farrell and Ed Norton in Pride and Glory
Ed Norton and Colin Farrell as a bent copper in Pride and Glory.

This attention helped it become a minor cause célèbre among online movie aficionados that couldn’t resist the bait: a scandalous tale of a suppressed masterpiece. But the sad truth is that Pride and Glory is an awful, depressing, pointless mess of a movie. Actually, that’s not fair; it’s not poorly made from a technical standpoint. It now seems likely there was no actual conspiracy to bury a misunderstood masterpiece. Perhaps New Line simply couldn’t slot the film into its slate, figure out how to market it, or was forced to shunt some projects aside during the stress of the imminent destruction of the entire company. Or maybe even, most unlikely of all, New Line had the sense to realize Pride and Glory just wasn’t a very good movie.

Also contributing to the aura of controversy was the bungled filming of a police funeral scene at the actual ceremony for New York City officer Eric Hernandez, accidentally killed by friendly fire in 2006. The production reportedly promised the family they would be respectful and stay out of their way, but reneged and clumsily intruded on the sensitive affair. Having seen the completed scene, I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t have been effectively staged with a complement of extras in full dress uniform.

Pride and Glory was written by brothers Gavin and Gregory O’Connor. As the sons of a police officer, they had unusual access to the New York Police Department. If their film is supposed to be a tribute to honest cops, its corruption plot must feel like a slap in the face. The movie’s fictional corrupt cops are wholly, utterly evil, with no gradations of character or motivation. Jimmy Egan (Farrell) and a clutch of fellow cops have been skimming money off drug busts for years, and have graduated to murder and selling drugs themselves. Egan’s brother-in-law Ray Tierney (Norton) finds himself in a position where he could turn Egan in.

Complicating matters, Tierney’s pop Francis Sr. (John Voight) and brother Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich, brother to New Line executive Toby Emmerich, and typecast as a cop after his role in Little Children) are also in the force. Francis Jr. also knows about the corruption, but doesn’t have the courage to man up. If Ray does the right thing, it will not only tear up his family but the New York Police Department itself. But events conspire such that the good guys don’t have to act; three crooked cops self-destruct of their own accord, and the story reveals itself to the press. Jimmy and Ray are freed to settle their personal grievances as two stereotypical movie Irish cops ought: fisticuffs in a pub.

John Voight in Pride and Glory
John Voight in Pride and Glory. Cheese it, it’s the fuzz!

I suspect O’Connor had ambitions of making another L.A. Confidential, but his result doesn’t measure up to the standards of such a superior film noir. Note the superficial resemblances: police corruption, drugs, family pride. The plot only seems complex, but is actually stupid-simple. Exposition scenes lay out the entire narrative quite early, draining any sense of mystery or suspense. The dialogue is peppered with a torrent of names that are challenging for the audience to connect with faces, a technique that provides only a superficial complexity to a simple plot.

The tone is absurdly grim and totally humorless, and devoid of any human emotion beyond Ray’s grim sense of duty. The classic film noir element most notably lacking in this boy’s club production is any hint of women or sex. What few women there are in the cast barely figure into the plot. The most significant female character is cancer-stricken Abby (Jennifer Ehle), whose sole purpose in the plot seems to be to humanize husband Francis Jr.

Pride and Glory utterly lacks the sense of verisimilitude of the television series The Wire, similarly set in the worlds of inner city drug and police cultures. Now is as good a time as any to state that this blog does not apologize for taking advantage of any opportunity whatsoever to evangelize The Wire.

The setting is a version of New York City that may or may not actually exist. In fact, there’s an unusual disclaimer before the end credits stating its characters and events are totally fictional. Obviously, if there was an actual case of such massive corruption in the NYPD, we’d have heard about it.

After the credits, there’s yet another disclaimer I’ve never seen before, stating that no one connected with the production took any money to promote the use of tobacco products. I don’t smoke, and never has, but is offended by the notion that movies are influential in this way. Granted, movies are a powerful artform, and can affect people’s hearts and minds. The ills of society are real problems that require complex solutions, but censoring movies is not one of them. It’s a cheap and easy way for righteous fools to believe they are combating a problem. Where’s the corresponding worry that little kids will watch this movie and be inspired to grow up to be corrupt cops?

Categories
2 Stars Movies

Brad Pitt Lives Life in Reverse in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

This blogger is slowly cooling on former favorite David Fincher. His underrated first feature Alien3 is highly compromised, but easily the next most thematically interesting entry in the Alien franchise (after, of course, Ridley Scott’s rich original). Se7en is one of the most gut-wrenchingly disturbing movies ever made, notable for having virtually no violence appear onscreen, despite its reputation. Fight Club is perhaps the movie of the nineties, an eccentric blast of countercultural fury.

But almost everything that followed seemed a disappointment. The Game was wildly implausible, without the pop and sizzle that carried the similarly over-the-top Fight Club. Panic Room was an empty exercise in style, seemingly conceived solely for Fincher to experiment with new digital techniques that would allow him to create impossibly continuous camera moves through the walls and floors of a city brownstone (and possibly also as another vehicle for star Jodie Foster’s persona as a single parent to be reckoned with). Zodiac was highly praised both as a tight procedural thriller and as a tour-de-force of still more bleeding-edge digital special effects (so good that most viewers wouldn’t suspect that many sequences were not traditionally shot in-camera), but it did absolutely nothing for me. I’m wondering if I missed some key aspect of it that would open it up to me – and that perhaps I should reappraise it now that a director’s cut is available on DVD.

Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
You’re only as old as you feel

The advance marketing for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button excited me at first, but I was apprehensive when I learned the screenplay (loosely based on a 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) was by Eric Roth, the writer of Forrest Gump. Indeed, it did turn out to be constructed in a similar vein and tone, even mimicking some of the corniest devices of Gump: the famous digital feather twirling in the wind has been replaced by an unlikely reappearing hummingbird; Forrest’s mother’s aphorism “life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get” has its analog in the less memorable “you never know what’s coming for you”; even Forrest Gump’s parade of cameos by famous or infamous Americans is here continued with an appearance by Teddy Roosevelt. Against my will, this cutesiness did succeed in drawing me in for most of its running time. I was engrossed for much of it, but its leisurely three-hour running time honestly strained my patience by about the two-hour mark.

Fincher and Roth relate the decades-long story via the framing device of Benjamin’s (Brad Pitt) one true love Daisy (Cate Blanchett) on her deathbed, introducing her adult daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) to her biological father through a dramatic reading of his diary, with gaps filled in from her own memory. A soon-to-be infamous hurricane brews outside the Louisiana hospital room, shortly to erase much of Benjamin and Daisy’s milieu. The multiple layers of storytelling result is no less than three speaking voices to narrate the tale in voiceover. One framing device too far?

Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Cate Blanchett is a beautiful woman, and will be at any age, but it’s eerie to see her appear to be in her twenties.

The central conceit of the story is a fantastically unfortunate disease that afflicts one Benjamin Button. His body is born aged and decrepit, and ages backwards while his mind matures normally. As he aptly puts it when still a boy, he was “born old.” Taking this story as anything other than a parable or fairy tale would be to miss the point, but the photorealistic special effects place the movie firmly in believable reality. So this viewer’s mind (when not distracted by the high-tech visuals) pondered the logistics.

Some of the rules don’t seem to hold up: as a chronological adolescent, he manifests the typical sexual desires and self-centeredness. But his aged body strangely has the physical fitness and stamina/potency to act them out (we see him preening in front of a mirror, seemingly only aged from the neck up). Also, presumably, Benjamin can be assured to die when his body regresses to infancy. So, given his physical state at birth, is his death date pre-ordained? If he had been born with an infantilized body of a 20-year old, could he have been assured of only having two decades to live? Is he impervious to harm? There is onscreen evidence to support this theory: he somehow manages to survive being stepped on as a newborn, and later, is one of the few survivors of a German submarine attack on an outclassed tugboat during World War II.

Benjamin is adopted by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), an unfortunately stereotypical African American character, and spends his youth and old age (and vice versa!) at the nursing home she manages. There, he meets his one true love Daisy, the niece of one of the tenants. Benjamin’s curious condition prevents him from having any kind of normal friendship or relationship with her, so he leaves home to find his way in the world.

He has his first serious relationship with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), an older woman who thinks she’s younger than him (later, we learn that meeting him helped her change her life). Eventually, Benjamin and Daisy do meet at roughly the same physical age and consummate their mutual love. When Daisy quite rightly asks Benjamin if he will still love her when she’s old and wrinkly, he jokingly turns it around and asks if she will still love him when he has acne.

But what first amuses eventually comes back around to become one of the most painfully emotional sequences in the whole movie: Benjamin does after all regress into senility (or perhaps even Alzheimer’s, before it was identified), trapped in the body of a pimply teenager. As always, the point is that the bell curve of a human life can be seen as a mirror image of itself: here, the impetuousness, aggression, and mood swings of senility are equated with the tumult of adolescence. Likewise, extreme youth and old age both are characterized as the ultimate states of dependence and vulnerability.

Tilda Swinton in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Tilda Swinton as Benjamin’s first lover, an older woman whom he allows to believe is younger

The special effects that allow an aged version of Pitt’s face to be superimposed over another, diminutive actor are light years in advance of the still-creepy digital rotoscoping animation style used in Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express and Beowulf (although the latter is an excellent film in spite of the ineffective effects). But no matter how eerily fluid and seamless the effects, I could not shake the feeling that I was watching something largely actualized by animators equipped with a giant computer server farm. These obviously cutting edge techniques are more comprehensible to me than whatever the makeup and/or CG wizards did to make 44-year-old Pitt and the 39-year-old Blanchett appear to be in their smooth-skinned and limber-limbed early 20s. Also, it must be said that an artificially aged Pitt in his hypothetical 50s and 60s is a dead ringer for Robert Redford.

There must be something in the bottled water filmmakers have been drinking recently, for I’ve noticed a decided trend towards movies about aging recently. Sarah Polley’s Away From Her and Tamara Jenkin’s The Savages both look at the senility that often comes at the end of life, and how it may affect the lives of those still living, for better or for worse. But another pair of movies dealt with mortality and the fear of unfinished business through the lens of fantasy: Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. All of these movies tap into most people’s fear of aging: not only of losing physical health and thus independence, but also of the reliability of one’s own mind.

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2 Stars Movies

Demi Moore goes chrome dome in Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane

Ridley Scott has made his share of testosterone-laden Hollywood flicks, ranging from his very first feature The Duellists, through Black Rain, and finally blowing the top off the scale with Gladiator. But unlike many of his contemporaries (Michael Mann and Michael Bay come to mind), a surprising number of feminist-themed films with strong female characters are scattered amongst his oeuvre: Alien, Thelma & Louise, and G.I. Jane.

Demi Moore in G.I. Jane
Demi Moore sports the chrome dome look that failed to take off in the 90s

For Alien‘s protagonist Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to be female was not just a bold choice for a horror / science fiction film, but an utterly appropriate one. Alien is loaded with symbolic fertility imagery and metaphorical childbirth. Ripley grapples with the themes of reproduction (and, arguably, abortion) anthropomorphized as a carnivorous monster with an erect penis for a head. Thelma & Louise had an explosive impact upon its release, and this blogger recalls seeing it on the cover of Time Magazine. A common theme in the press’ coverage of the controversial film was that such a story of female empowerment was in fact directed by… gasp… a man! To oversimplify, the film considered the relative morality of violence when perpetrated by an oppressed gender. Thelma & Louise packed pistols a decade later than Ripley aborted her alien baby with a phallic flamethrower.

Viggo Mortensen and Demi Moore in G.I. Jane
Viggo Mortensen dresses down Demi Moore with his eyes

Thelma & Louise may have raised hackles and inspired countless op-ed pieces about gender equality, but I recall Scott’s G.I. Jane not being taken seriously at all upon release. Its premise was its worst feature, and indeed one might compare it to Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin, except for the minor detail that it’s not funny. Craven politician Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft) talks a rising female Navy lifer Jordan O’Neill (Demi Moore) into competing against a bevy of men in the most grueling and gender-segregated type of military training ever devised: the Navy SEALs (in the real world, SEAL training is expressly limited to males, and no woman has yet been allowed to attempt it). DeHaven manipulates the resultant media circus to gain votes and save the military bases in her state from closure. O’Neill faces off against Master Chief (Viggo Mortensen), a closeted sensitive guy who repurposes a D.H. Lawrence poem to initiate his standard ritual of humiliation and dehumanization.

Demi Moore in G.I. Jane
Hands up, who doesn’t want to watch Demi Moore do one-armed push ups?

Beyond the contrived premise, G.I. Jane was painted as a vanity star vehicle for an overreaching actor, known more for her considerable beauty and fitness and than her acting chops. It didn’t last long, but Moore was one of the biggest Hollywood stars of 1997. Here, she shows off her muscular physique in scopophilic workout and shower sequences, and famously shaves her head live on film. It’s a weak form of feminism for O’Neill’s greatest triumph to be her triumphant exclamation “suck my dick.” She transforms herself into just one of the guys rather than proving herself as a human being of equal standing, be she male or female.

Now having finally seen G.I. Jane as part of our Ridley Scott rewatch, the best I can say is that it’s not as bad as I would have imagined. If Black Rain found Scott in Michael Mann territory, G.I. Jane places him squarely in Michael Bay country. SEAL training is shown in great detail, with all the fetishized military hardware and windblown American flags one would expect in a Bay hagiography. But most shocking to a viewer in 2008 is a sequence in which O’Neill is subjected to waterboarding. It cuts through the nauseating patriotism like electrodes to the genitals.

Categories
3 Stars Movies

Jeff Bridges battles the elements in Ridley Scott’s White Squall

By 1996, Ridley Scott had worked in almost every typical feature film genre: most notably historical drama (The Duellists, 1492), science fiction (Alien, Blade Runner), and police thrillers (Someone to Watch Over Me, Black Rain). But White Squall straddles several genres, sometimes all at once: coming-of-age melodrama, adventure, courtroom drama, and disaster on the high seas (like later peers Titanic and The Perfect Storm).

Aside from the rare exception of the fantasy Legend, Scott’s films are always about adults. But White Squall features teenage characters and is relatively mild in terms of violence, profanity, and sex (there’s no bloody gunplay or slimy extraterrestrials here). The frequently shirtless young male cast, including star-to-be Ryan Phillippe, provided lots of beefcake that probably attracted a large teenage girl audience at the time. But the core of the story is still about male bonding, duty, and honor, placing it somewhat outside the bounds of a chick flick.

White Squall
The Albatross boys enact The Lord of the Thighs (and torsos)

It’s also unusual in Scott’s oeuvre for being based on actual events. The screenplay by Todd Robinson is based on the nonfiction book The Last Voyage of the Albatross by Charles Gieg Jr. and Felix Sutton. In the 1950s, Captain Christopher “Skipper” Sheldon (Jeff Bridges) and his wife Alice (Caroline Goodall), a doctor, ran a series of boating excursions on the Caribbean Seas for young men. The trips, for school credit, provided a kind of high seas liberal education focusing on self-reliance, teamwork, and literature. An onboard English Literature teacher (John Savage, who resembles Ridley Scott) was always on hand to be generally annoying and pompously spout quotations. Unbeknownst to the boys’ parents, Sheldon’s concept of liberal education also included shore leave with abundant alcohol and the opportunity to meet hot young female exchange students the boys would never have to see again. This was a quaint time when sexually transmitted diseases were more of a rite of growing up than a life-threatening risk.

Jeff Bridges in White Squall
Jeff Bridges pleads, “This aggression will not stand, man!” Alternately, the mast really held the boat together.

The physical task of operating the boat could be seriously dangerous, but one particular trip in 1960 became especially so in more ways than one. The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted while they were out to sea, and they were boarded by militant Cubans. After a narrow escape allowed as much by chance as by Sheldon’s quick thinking, they encounter an even bigger problem: dealing with a spoiled rich kid (I can’t figure out the actor’s name, but he looks for all the world just like Cillian Murphy). The seemingly cursed voyage ends in a mythical “white squall,” a freak weather event in which a sudden windstorm appears without the traditional warning signs such as dark clouds. The voyage ends in utter tragedy, and segues into a courtroom drama bogged down by speechifying.

The end titles reveal that Sheldon overcame his personal grief and professional discredit to become the first Peace Corps Director in Latin America, before dying in 2002.

Categories
2 Stars Movies

Material Witness: Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me

Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) is more of a drama than a police thriller, refreshingly focused on its characters over suspense and action alone. Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) is a salt-of-the-earth Queens detective assigned to protect material witness Claire (Mimi Rogers) from assassination. Keegan is a modest family man, recently promoted to the second rung of the police hierarchy. It’s no glamorous job; he spends most of his working hours just sitting around not finishing crosswords. He’s utterly unlike the over-the-top testosterone-laden cop character played by Michael Douglas in Scott’s other police thriller, Black Rain.

Tom Berenger in Someone to Watch Over Me

Keegan is more-or-less happily married (to Lorraine Bracco as Ellie), but a man like him would never otherwise come into contact with a beautiful uptown girl like Claire. Cooped up in close proximity to each other every night, they inevitably lapse into an affair. Her effeminate but wealthy and powerful husband senses that Keegan is a romantic rival, but he is an effectively impotent character and frequently disappears from the film altogether. Also notable is song-and-dance man Jerry Orbach already typecast as a detective in a small role as Keegan’s tough Lieutenant.

Mimi Rogers in Someone to Watch Over Me
When Mimi Rogers heard Director Ridley Scott was big on visual spectacles, this isn’t what she had in mind

One of the guaranteed pleasures of any Ridley Scott film is the visuals. Someone to Watch Over Me‘s opening credits feature the namesake song by George Gershwin sung by Sting over beautifully sleek aerial shots of New York City at night. The final shootout is perfectly staged in a claustrophobically enclosed space, with huge mirrors placed for maximum dramatic impact. The principals stalk each other in near silence, punctuated by the wide dynamics of sound design. Perhaps Scott was competing with that other upstart master of cinematic shootouts, Michael Mann (in particular, the similarly explosive conclusion to the contemporary thriller Manhunter).

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