Quantum of Solace 11.14.08
Either this is what happens when one ages or this is a profoundly flawed film. I often have trouble understanding dialogue these days. Thanks to the digital recording device on the television I can up the volume and replay until I either get it or tire of the effort. I do it often enough that I think to it in the movie theater, even the concert hall. Occasionally I imagine using it in dinner conversation but only for laughs. Like when this self-absorbed fellow decried the worry over running out of oil. Every year we find more proven reserves, they find more and then they go in and prove it, he says. I ask if he thinks the supply of oil is infinite. Talk radio sycophants so often make their point with no real understanding of the "argument" they purport to make. Does the find of some more oil somewhere mean worry over running out is unfounded? A recent acquantance spoke of his worry over Obama's "associations." Do you think he secretly hates America and wants to be President so he can destroy America from the top down, I ask. No? Well then, what are you saying? What are any of them saying? That they're scared. Arugula? No, thank you, it is a food with which I am unfamiliar and therefore fearful of, they say. Or should. But I digress.
The latest Bond film, with the best Bond since Sean, isn't as much an audio challenge as a visual one. It begins, of course, with a car chase and automatic weapons with six hundred bullet clips. The car being chased is Bond in an Aston Martin (is this how fealty to the original books is maintained) and the chaser is never more than twenty feet behind firing constantly. Several hundred bullets hit Bond's car, the driver's window is shot out, the rear and passenger windows, the doors are riddled, the trunk, everything gets a bullet except James, of course. When the police give chase the bad guys fire a quick burst at them and poof. When Bond retrieves one of their machine guns as it slides down the pavement and fires a quick burst at them, poof. The gun was sent sliding when Bond used his door to, well, I really don't know how it happened. Nor did I have a clue how he got rid of the several speedboats later in the film. They were all about him and he spun his mini-shrimp trawler about and between and over them until they were all gone. The number of edits in the action sequences would make Psycho's shower scene look like the opening shot for Frenzy by comparison (the opening scene of Frenzy is an incredible shot from above the Thames, under the bridge, into the city, down an alley, up a set of stairs, and to a door, and out again without a single edit, the shower scene a compilation of a hundred edits). I could tell Bond was in the sequence, that water was involved, and the bad guys were in black, I think. Beyond that I haven't a clue what happened. I am aging, certainly, but I don't think that was what was up here. One of the two "Bond girls" (what a shameful nod to sexism) dies from being covered in oil, an update to the gold paint murder from Goldfinger, and references to Bond's girlfriend who betrayed him and died for him were ubiquitous but I haven't any idea who she was - did I miss a Bond film?
On the positive side the bad guy, Greene, was played by the brilliant Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), the evil plot was to purchase Bolivia's water (previously accomplished by Bechtel Corporation), and Judi Dench made it all seem real and I wish I'd recognized Alicia Keyes and Jack White as the title credit songsters earlier. Ultimately, though, Quantum of Solace is cotton candy flying out of the tub in all directions, a tasty treat turned into a nasty mess in the finishing.
The Queen 11.04.06
This was nearly as much a film about Princess Di as it was about Queen Elizabeth. The film takes place largely over the ten days following Diana's death when England mourned publicly and the Queen hid away at the Royal retreat at Balmoreal. I'm not sure the value of this sort of film. It's great that the Queen is a real person and all but did we think she wasn't? As an exploration of changing English values, stiff upper lip gives way to public wailing, I think the jury may still be out on that. Maybe it's about the power of television to equalize. Di beats Liz like she stole something sort of thing? No, that can't be. Maybe it's just what it appears to be, a study of The Queen. As such it certainly succeeds. We can't help but like the poor dear when she breaks her aging Land Rover, expertly diagnoses the problem, calls for help, sobs silently over her travails, admires and saves a beautiful deer from certain death. In one three minute scene we see her competence, humanity, vulnerability and love of nature. It's all done perfectly by the sure handed Stephen Frears and could, as a short film, acomplished the same objective. But then we would have missed the footage of Diana and, sap that I am, I was as moved by that as I was Mirren's powerful and understated performance.
Queen of the Damned 02.24.02
A few years back I was given a copy of Interview With a Vampire by Anne Rice. I read it in an afternoon and was particularly taken with her description of The Garden District in New Orleans. The foot thick walls sunk deep into the Louisiana marsh fascinated and intrigued me. Like the sweet, juicy peach from twenty years ago that, to this day, I pursue in market after market, I read her Interview With a Vampire in hope of more of that superior writing she used to describe those ancient New Orleans neighborhoods. Her story put me in mind of H.P. Lovecraft, my favorite horror story author. Lovecraft and Poe both used the first person narrative to great effect in some of their best stories. The "you will of course think me mad but let me tell you this story" has always been a personal favorite. I finished Interview and then The Vampire Lestat, The Witching Hour, and Queen of the Damned. I even branched off into her book about the castrated children choirs of the old Roman Catholic Church. I stopper short of her pornography (she writes hard core porn under a pseudonym) but found her a generally entertaining author. I'm not sure she has anything of lasting value to impart to us beyond entertainment but then entertainment seems to be harder and harder to come by. So much trash is thrown at us in the guise of entertainment - monster truck pulls, reality television, The Man Show or whatever that paean to chauvinism is called - that when a halfway decent novel like Interview With a Vampire comes along, I fall for the rest of the series.
This is the frame of reference when I plunk down my seven dollars for Queen of the Damned.
The music that awakens The Vampire Lestat is heavy metal. It is loud enough in the theater that I have no doubt it would awaken a vampire from a hundred year nap. Lestat was once an eighteenth century French nobleman with what seemed to be a Nebraska accent. He becomes a rock star (Marilyn Manson and Trent Reznor look out - The Vampire Lestat has stolen your personas) and schedules a big concert in Death Valley. Meanwhile, the mother of all vampires, Akasha, played by the deceased hip-hop star Aaliyah, awakens from her thousand year nap (prompted not by heavy metal but by Lestat's violin playing, which, for no apparent reason, is executed at super-speed) and decides to wreak havoc on all humanity, just like she did in ancient Egypt. And we thought bricks with no straw was bad! Several of the good vampires, under the spiritual guidance of a vampire with a continuing human lineage, decide to fight Akasha. It seems vampires, the good ones, at least, have a soft spot for humans. Akasha looks a lot more like a hip-hop star than the Queen of the Damned but then what should the Queen of the Damned look like, Nancy Reagan?
One of the more interesting aspects of Rice's Vampire Chronicles is the Talamasca, the group of regular humans tasked with watching and keeping track of the Vampire community. In her novel the Talamasca (featured in The Witching Hour) occupy a place of some seriousness. In the film they appear to be Vampire groupies. The cutest one has a thing for Lestat.
Allrighty then, there you have it. Six producers, two screenwriters, a dozen actors from the Vampire guild, and a dead hip-hop star later, you get the blockbuster of the weekend.
I think I'll go lay down for a hundred years, nighty-night all.
Based on one of the sixty-four thousand Graham Greene novels, The Quiet American was originally played by Audie Murphy (the original quiet American) and the British journalist by Sir Michael Redgrave (the original detached Brit). This go-round has Brendan Fraser as the Quiet American and Michael Caine as the jaded British journalist, Tomas Fowler. Both vie for the affections of a beautiful Vietnamese girl, Phuong, played by Do Thi Hai Yen. Besides being pretty and accommodating to Fowler's opium habit, we are at a loss to understand why these two men would risk everything for her attention. Maybe there was some history there we didn't get to see between Fowler and Phuong, but Pyle (the quiet American) is apparently smitten at first sight. Now Pyle is the man the CIA sends to develop a fifth column to counter the Communists and replace the "weak-willed" French. That he would fall head over heels doesn't add up. But then not much does in this macho genre now headed by the bizarre Tom Clancey.
Caine is, as always, fun to watch and Fraser is a huge well of untapped talent we only glimpsed in Gods and Monsters. The story, though, my God, the story. Ten points for Greene's prescient perspective of America's doomed Vietnamese strategy but negative eight for the sad little love story. Your average eighth grader would do better. Net score = two, on a scale of ten.
Meanwhile, Madeliene turns cruel to he Priest (whom she secretly loves) when he spurns her after a late night kiss. The Marquis angers the doctor and gets his writing privileges revoked. Revoking his writing privileges causes him to lose his already weak grip on sanity. He begins to write with chicken bones and broken glass using wine and blood for ink. He writes a novel on his clothes.
Transplanted Englishmen, intent on continuing the gentlemanly sport of hunting and killing small mammals, attempted unsuccessfully to import rabbits. When they did finally succeed, with twenty-four released into the wild in 1859, they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Ten years later farmers were inviting hunters to their property to kill the little bunnies. Over two million were slaughtered in 1869 and the rabbit population was largely unaffected. One hundred years later, with population estimates exceeding half a billion rabbits, the Australian government introduced a deadly (99% mortality) virus to control, once and for all, the pesky rabbit. The 1% that survived, of course, passed their immunity on to future generations and within a few decades the rabbits were back in even greater numbers.
Before bugs, the Australian's efforts were markedly more low-tech. They built a fence from the top to the bottom of the continent, about 1,500 miles. Along the way, the work crews encountered Aborigine settlements. Once such encounter produced three "half-caste" daughters. With all the best intentions, the Australian government attempted to breed the Aborigine out of the "half-castes" by encouraging their intermarriage with the white population. The mechanism for this breeding program was to remove the potential breeders, or as we now refer to them, little girls, from their mothers and place them in encampments where they could learn a useful trade like housekeeping. A couple of generations later and - voila - no sign of the Aborigine! This is the background story told in Rabbit-Proof Fence.
The story in the foreground is of one little girl in particular, Molly (Everlyn Sampi) who tries leads her two sisters home, on foot, the length of the rabbit proof fence. Directed by Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American, a couple of the Jack Ryan movies and The Bone Collector to his credit), Rabbit-Proof Fence handles the easy target of Australian Aborigine policy in a mature and sophisticated way. As is almost always the case, there are no red flaming devils in these horrific stories of cultural homicide, the players are doing the best they can to do the best they see. That their vision is skewed may not be widely known and the naysayers are thought to have too little appreciation for the magnitude of the problem or the underlying principles involved, or the historical record or any of a number of other ready made rhetorical tools for pushing them to the sidelines. To come back generations later and, armed with today's knowledge, wisdom, and data, slam those players does disservice to their humanity. Kudos to Doris Pilkington (the author of the book upon which Rabbit-Proof Fence is based) and Phillip Noyce for taking the high road. The result is a story overflowing with humanity - everyone's - and a genuinely uplifting experience in the cinema.
Anne Hathaway charmed us in The Princess Diaries, worried us when she signed on for its sequel, gave us a hint of her depth in Brokeback Mountain, held her own with Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and assumes her position in the first tier with her portrayal of a dark and desperate Kym in Rachel Getting Married. I just sat back down after turning down the volume on CNBC's breathless watch over the market and noticed Amy Adams on the cover of Vanity Fair. Has there ever been a time so full of profound female talent? Meryl Streep isn't done yet, Winger continues to remind us of her extraordinariness, Nicole Kidman seems to be in full long stride, Michele Williams is only scratching her surface, did you see Naomi Watts in Ellie Parker or 21 Grams or We Don't Live Here Anymore, Amy Adams Junebug character is now eternal, and Anne Hathaway shows us chops second to none of them. I don't care if the market collapses as long as I can see any of these actresses again. Go see for yourself.
Rat Race 08.25.01
Surely this is a sign of the times. While technology advances unabated, culture collapses. Film becomes more and more sophisticated while the stories told become flatter and more one-dimensional. Herculean efforts are made to dredge up the past and recapture some of its glory, but the "new" product is outfitted in the technology of a spiritually and culturally bankrupt people. Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes is a perfect example of this sorry state. Rat Race is only the latest. Remember It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World? A group of people find a dying Jimmy Durante at the bottom of a cliff and hear his last words about a satchel of cash buried under "the big W." Jonathan Winters, Terry-Thomas, Phil Silvers, Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, and Mickey Rooney star in the 1963 comedy.
Compare that cast with the 2001 remake - Breckin Meyer, Amy Smart, Whoopi Goldberg, Lanei Chapman, Vince Vieluf, Seth Green, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jon Lovitz, Kathy Najimy, Jillian Marie, Rowan Atkinson, John Cleese, and Dave Thomas. Cuba Gooding, Whoopi Goldberg, John Cleese, and Rowan Atkinson are talented, to be sure, but by comparison to the comedic giants from the original version, well. Had Whoopie been surrounded by Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, and, and... The list of today's comedians of first rank peters out after Eddie Murphy. Richard Pryor and Woody Allen certainly rank in the first tier, but Richard's too sick and Woody needs to retire before he breaks a hip.
Even if the cast were comparable, the poop jokes (visual!) and Jews in Hitler's touring car scene scream out this remakes poor taste and weak writing. The only hint of originality comes early on as an inspired Amy Smart chases her philandering boyfriend into the desert with a helicopter. The busload of Lucy look-alikes had some promise until the writers threw in a Lucy in drag. "Oh that Lucy's a guy, har-de-har-har!" The humor of puberty delivered by a second rate cast, It's A Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad World.
I don't think I've slept through the night since I was a child. I get up probably three to five times a night. When I was in my early teens I would walk down the hall to the kitchen and get a drink of cold water. Often I'd make out the glow of a cigarette from the living room and the faint sounds of Ray Charles on the stereo. I liked a few of his tunes but my interests tended toward the Rolling Stones and Beatles. Ray Charles was for old people I figured, why else would mom listen? I knew enough to know she wanted no company so I crept quietly back to bed. I never got a chance to ask her what her late night music sessions were all about but my guess is nothing happy. Maybe that's why I took so long to finally go see Jamie Foxx's uncanny portrayal of my mom's musical hero. He's getting some bum wraps for lip syncing and that seems sort of crazy. Did Anthony Hopkins actually paint any of the canvasses used in Picasso? Did George C. Scott actually shoot at the German plane strafing his headquarters? Kudos to Kevin Spacey for mimicking Bobby Darin in the upcoming Beyond the Sea but I think I'd rather hear the real thing than an uncanny imitation no matter how convincing. But that's another story.
Ray Charles story was a bit of a surprise, I had no idea how big a role heroin played in his early years. That was tough to watch but balanced by the compelling and apparently heartfelt performance by Sharon Warren as Aretha Robinson, Ray's hard but loving mother. Curtis Armstrong and Richard Schiff keep the white folk from looking any worse than they were by fairly representing the wizards Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler. Side men to the overwhelming talent of Ray Charles certainly but generously given credit for expediting what would have no doubt happened had they never met. The real driving force of this film is the infectious and passionate music of Ray Charles and the filmmakers smartly didn't skimp in that category. The only criticism is the usual one of trying to portray heroin withdrawal on film. It never works and always distracts. Fuzzy sweaty close ups and pans to thrashing about in bed seems to exhaust Hollywood's repertoire. But little matter, the film is a masterpiece about a master musician.
Read My Lips 08.17.02
Waiting in a doctor's office the other day I picked up a copy of The National Review. The cover was a caricature of Yassir Arafat looking like a scary bird of prey. I turned to the masthead first looking for William F. Buckley's name. Not there. I turned to the letters. The first one was from a fellow taking issue with a deaf lesbian couple seeking a deaf sperm donor. Deaf is a handicap, he argued, and attempts to encourage the birth of a handicapped child should be discouraged, if not prevented.
The deaf maintain a vibrant and healthy culture apart from the hearing. Their method of communication, American Sign Language, is unique. It exists in three dimensions. All other language is two dimensional, and abstract. Based on an arbitrary collection of symbols (the alphabet), it is dependent for its meaning on an agreement in the abstract between speaker and listener. Anyone trying to make out what is being said in a foreign language is helpless. Verbs precede subjects in one language, gender identified through suffixes in another. Languages must be learned; there is nothing intuitive about it. Despite Chomsky's theories of a "deep structure" to syntax shared by all cultures, speak Portuguese to me and I will smile and nod in utter ignorance. Not so with ASL. ASL transcends national and cultural boundaries to be understood by the deaf everywhere. Where traditional sign language is dependent on the same arbitrary assignment of meaning to abstract symbols as non-sign language, ASL "acts out" the communication in three dimensions.
This may make the language of the deaf richer and more profound than two-dimensional language. If the deaf share a language that communicates in ways more profound than the language the rest of us share, it is not beyond the realm of reason to suggest they share a cultural or social bond that may not only compensate for the loss of a faculty but transcend and expand it beyond that known to the hearing world. In that context, is an effort to birth a deaf child so easily condemned? But I digress.
The previews for Read My Lips (Sur mes levres) tantalize us with silence. A silence not total, though, as we hear a low hum in the background. It is the sound of blood moving through veins. Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) lives in this world. She is not totally deaf, though, and reenters the world of the hearing when she needs to, leaves it when she wants to. She is a secretary in a busy real estate firm and we meet her on a particularly bad day. Her boss suggests she hire an assistant. At the employment service she asks for a tall male between 25 and 30, no, 25 she corrects herself, with strong hands and nice clothes. A recently paroled Paul (Vincent Cassel) arrives at her desk the next day. When Carla asks him what spreadsheet programs he knows, Paul answers, "I don't know, the usual ones, German, I think." A lonely and disconnected Carla hires him. His past catches up with him and he and Carla are swept up in a world she does not know but soon masters. Reminiscent of Rear Window, Carla perches on a rooftop and watches some bad guys through binoculars. She reads their lips and translates for Paul. What began as a fascinating and brilliantly acted character study suddenly becomes a suspense thriller.
Emmanuelle Devos paints a powerful and convincing portrait. French director Jacques Audiard brilliantly captures the isolation of Carla's deaf world through sound and the lack thereof. His close-ups of Carla's eyes as she watches the hearing world around her are haunting and memorable. Vincent Cassel is dangerous and scary. The collision of his world of violence with Carla's world of silence is masterfully engineered. The result is an exciting, powerful and refreshingly different film.
The two women in front of me in line were each buying tickets to two films, The Reader and Slumdog Millionaire. I was bracketed by ticket buyers for the seniors only showing of Slumdog Millionaire two weeks ago when I went to see The Day the Earth Stood Still. Now I was behind two ladies discussing the qualifications for senior status with the college student behind the window. The third member of their group ran up and breathlessly explained why she wasn't taking a cut in line to me and the guy behind me. I said, no problem we just don't want you stroking out on us.
It seems the seniors are liberating some funds from their deflated retirement accounts in much the same way we used to splurge on some expensive champagne when our ends failed to meet. The movies enjoyed a resurgence during the Depression as millions escaped an ugly reality for the silver screen. Silver was once embedded in film screens to enhance reflectivity but silver's inability to fully diffuse the light it reflects doomed it as audience angles became more obtuse with the larger movie-houses. I think I'm stalling while I decide whether The Reader was a serious exploration of the nature of evil or a romance novel wrapped around the Nazis instead of the pirates of the Barbary Coast.
The breathless third lady laughed but one of her buds said she gets way too much exercise for that. I felt slightly scolded. The exercise lady was still fumbling with her purse when I bought my ticket for The Reader. Did you read the book, she asked, it's great. I didn't want to admit I hadn't heard of it and was only there to see Kate Winslett so I said, not yet.
The conceit of The Reader is not revealed until halfway through the film so don't read any further if you too haven't read the book and want to see it as Raimi intended. A sixteen year old boy in post war Berlin meets a forty something woman and they have a passionate affair. The woman disappears one day and the boy is wrecked. Years later, with his law professor and classmates he attends one of the many trials of former Nazis. His former lover is on trial as a Nazi prison guard.
The genius of The Reader may be in the book (I wouldn't know) but is certainly obvious in Winslett's portrayal of a German woman (Hannah Schmidtz) caught up in the Nazi killing machine. She heard they were hiring so she went looking for work. Before long she was choosing who would be sent to their deaths to make room for the next load of workers. Once she took the job it seems, her work ethic took over and everything she did made sense in the context of that which preceded or would follow. There wasn't room for more people at the camp so some had to go. She would pick the sick and already dying. What would you have done, she asks her interrogator, he does not answer. We would like to believe we would stand up to such orders, refuse and face the consequences, but would we? Aren't we citizens of a country responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents in an unprovoked war? Written a letter to your Congressman have you? Do we not live near prisons filled with young black men guilty of trying to escape their hopelessness with drugs? Gone to visit, have you? Would we have refused to "soften up" the terrorists under our control at Abu Ghraib? Are we so different from Lynndie England? Would we have walked into Leavenworth prison rather than do our part in the war on terror?
Are we ever faced with a clear choice between good and evil? Or is the picture always hazy, the choices relative and our judgement confused by circumstance? Didn't Sadaam use poison gas on the Kurds? Aren't we better off without him? Didn't those drug users know they were breaking the law? Didn't some of them turn around and sell their drugs? Haven't we asked those young people to fight our wars for us? Weren't those prisoners trying to kill American soldiers?
What would you have done?
The Reaping 04.17.07
The last time a two-time Academy Award winner appeared in a film of this level, Hilary Swank dug herself into The Hole, err uh The Ditch, oh, uhh The Core, yes that's it , The Core. If you have any interest in seeing yet another dumb ole scientist made to play the fool by some of that old time religion rent this video. If you want to see an intelligent exploration of a person's loss of faith in the face of overwhelming tragedy only to regain it to save an innocent you'll have to look elsewhere. Just to make sure you don't bother, the little girl isn't evil at all, it's the friendly hunk deputy and the rest of the townfolk.
It would appear one of our more accomplished dramatists has joined the Allen school of film making. The Allen school of film making and the Karl Rove school of politics share a common theme, find a rut and live there. Mamet's rut is repetitive dialog atop an unimaginably complex narrative. I'm sure they talk like Mamet writes somewhere. Brooklyn maybe or Broadway. When I first heard it, in Mamet's Heist, it seemed dense and fresh. Now it just sounds thick and artificial. When the same actors (Ricky Jay, wife Rebecca Pigeon, Joe Mantegna) reappear with the same verbal tics from the last film and everybody is double crossing everybody, including the audience, the only intelligent act remaining is to tally up the unresolved plot points. Who was Emily Mortimer talking to when she was lost in the rain searching for an off market pharmacy? What was the scrip and who needed the pills? What was Tim Allen's role in the deception? Was stiffing the security guard cop part of the scam? Why were we introduced to Chiwetel Ejiofor's military background and then not told what it was? What did Ejiofor say that got him slapped by Mortimer? Why did the belt holder give up his belt to the guy that beat the guy he said he would give it to if he were beaten by him? See what I mean? You can't even ask the questions without doubling back on yourself. Constructing a three dimensional chess game would, I think, be easier than deconstructing this latest Mamet tour de convolute. Beats Speed Racer, I guess.
Red Dragon 10.02.02
One thing about the Hannibal movies, they attract an impressive lineup. Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, Emily Watson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. A similar cast was assembled for Hannibal II and the results were ghastly. Nothing got in the way of the acting this time. The script worked, the directing worked, and we were spared the gruesome shocks of Hannibal II. The worst images came at us as crime scene photos, allowing us a decent distance. Even then, I couldn't help but be horrified by the indecent couple behind me who brought their children! What possible justification can there be for such utter irresponsibility? I would go on but I know they will never read this as I'm sure if they have any exposure to text it is restricted to the word Cops that appears at the beginning of their favorite television show. But I digress.
We must register a complaint with the management, though, for the too tired "not really dead" routine. And when Mary-Louise Parker learns to use a gun we all know who will finally kill the Red Dragon, right?
Emily Watson as the blind love interest of the Red Dragon (Ralph Fiennes) is a pleasant surprise. Philip Seymour Hoffman as a nasty journalist is his usual gifted self, and Fiennes is scary as the alternately timid and fierce Red Dragon (after Blake's painting). Anthony Hopkins overplays Hannibal as much as Edward Norton underplays the FBI profiler. Good show everyone, now no more curtain calls, please.
The Red Planet 11.11.00
I turned to the guy next to me about half way through this debacle and asked, "how do these movies get made?" He answered with a question, "why do we come see them?" Good question. Maybe in the vanishing hope that some good science fiction movies are still out there. Mission to Mars was bad but not even close to this one. Ok, fasten your credulity belts, here we go -
One - The Earth's atmosphere is nearing toxic levels for humanity so we've been launching algae containers at Mars for ten years in hopes that the algae will produce oxygen.
Hope I didn't spoil the movie for you.
Myths are our attempt to explain the world. The Brothers Grimm did not instill our fear of the forest with Hansel and Gretel, they simply personified our natural fear of dark, threatening places. Mt. Olympus, Zeus, Hera and Hermes were the Greeks attempt to explain why bad things happen to good people. We continue to struggle with that one. That question, however, presupposes that everything happens for a reason and that good people should only have good things happen to them. I personally don't subscribe to either theory. I do not think there is some controlling intelligence behind the virus that attacks a child's immune system or a God that directs bacterial infections that cause blindness. Not that I am an atheist, mind you, I just do not believe everything is scripted or controlled.
But what about dragons? What is the truth at the root of this primordial creature? Fire breathing winged creatures, indeed. Scary monkey!
Reign of Fire with Christian Bale (Quinn) and Matthew McConaughey (VanZan) provides a delightfully plausible explanation. After burning up the dinosaurs and everything else on the planet, dragons turned on themselves until they too were almost extinct. Digging deep into the London underground (deeper even than Johnny Rotten), they lay dormant until the Earth was repopulated. A young Quinn is the first to meet the beast from long ago and before you know it, the world is burnt up again. Humanity is reduced to a couple of pockets struggling to survive. Quinn grows up and is in charge of a castle in England filled with stragglers and an inordinate number of children. The children could be our last hope for repopulating the planet, if we can ever get rid of the annoying fire breathing monstrosities. Along comes VanZan the ugly American dragonslayer.
The only real weakness in Reign of Fire is a heavy dose of testosterone. The first clue was VanZan's position astride the fifty-caliber machine gun on the tank. The only active woman in the movie is Alex (Izabella Scorupco) and she is a helicopter pilot that dispenses medicine, keeps the dead men's dogtags, and turns scardy-cat when confronted with a ten ton ninety-foot long fire breathing dragon. Women!
Misogynism aside, Reign of Fire is thrilling and fun. I am aware, by the way, that I am describing a movie about the end of civilization as we know it as fun, and I am equally aware it is only a movie. An excellent movie, though for those appreciative of the sci-fi/fantasy genre.
Remember The Titans 10.01.00
A Palestinian cameraman working for French television captured the following scene on videotape this weekend. A man and boy are seen crouching behind a three-foot box along a wall pock marked with bullet holes. The man has the boy pressed against his side with one arm draped over him and the other furiously waving from behind the box. Small arms fire is heard in the background. Bullets can be seen striking the wall and the small shelter behind which the man and boy attempt to hide. The boy can be seen crying furiously as the man waves and shouts. Soon the boy slumps down and rests his head in the man's lap. Seconds later the man's head begins to wobble and he appears dazed.
We learn from the photographer's voice over that the man and boy are father and son. The waving was accompanied by repeated pleas of "the child, the child!" as the father tried to get the shooters to stop. The boy died in his father's lap. A medic trying to reach them was shot and killed.
It all started when Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli military chief, toured a holy site in Jerusalem. Although he said his visit was about peace and reconciliation, the Palestinians didn't see it that way. Demonstrations began and the shooting started. Of course, it all started much earlier than Friday. It started, like all the other intractable conflicts around the globe, thousands of years ago.
Kathy Freeman lights the Olympic flame. An aborigine, her prominence in the Australian Olympics was meant to signal a new era for the aborigine people in Australia. That they were once hunted as sport and that their children were forcibly removed and placed with white families may be hard for some to forget. The Australian government refuses to apologize, citing their unwillingness to take responsibility for what their ancestors might have done.
Hutu tribesman in Rwanda hack to death tens of thousands of their Tutsi countrymen to avenge wrongs committed by the Tutsi under German and Belgian colonialism.
Irish terrorists shoot their countrymen in the knee because of suspicions of collaboration with the hated English.
Serbian efforts to ethnically cleanse their country are met with NATO bombing raids. The ethnic cleansing is stopped but not before the country is virtually emptied of "undesirables."
Racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts abound. Solutions are in short supply. Horror and tragedy prevail.
What can be done? Are these peoples doomed to forever hate and kill? In nearly every example of long-term intractable conflicts between peoples, an extended period of relative peace can be found. The Palestinians and Jews lived in relative harmony under the rule of the ancient Romans, the Hutus and Tutsis lived together for many decades under the colonial presence of the German and Belgian peoples, the Catholics and Protestants were kept from widespread slaughter by the British Army, and the Serbians and Bosnians were held at bay by the rule of Marshall Tito from the end of World War II until the end of the twentieth century. The lesson is repeated in a tale of integration in a souther US city.
Remember the Titans tells the story of a white Virginia high school suddenly combined with a nearby black high school. In an empty gesture at conciliation, the coach from the black high school is made head coach of the football team. The previews from this film tell you what kind of coach is Coach Boone (Denzel Washington). He is commanding, dictatorial, and utterly committed to the task at hand. That task is to win the state championship. This is an Erin Brokavich, Chariots of Fire, Breaking Away film. You know going in you are going to find hope restored, champions crowned, and bad guys vanquished. The joy, though, is in the telling, not the surprise. The script is powerful without an excess of melodrama, the acting is good (Denzel is great but then he always plays the hero well) but not brilliant, the direction well paced. I had trouble following some of the football action sequences but then I'm not much of a fan. I do know enough, though, to scoff at the notion that the head coach of a football team playing for the state championship (a coach who "won 250 games in thirty years") would, with his opponent down by four points, seventy five yards away, with eight seconds on the clock, probably not suddenly come to the realization that a deep pass was in the offing. Remember the Titans is based on a true story, though, and that helps it over these little lapses. The precocious ten-year-old daughter/coach was nonetheless a little hard to take. The theme doesn't support cutesy. The theme is the struggle to harmony between black and white players and coaches. The surrounding community remains polarized; this is the story of the players and coaches of the Titans. The battle for Coach Boone is uphill. The fight to get the players to tolerate each other is won by discipline and punishment. A meaningful speech or two is thrown in, along with one or two peacemaker types, but the battle is clearly won because Coach Boone physically wears down the players. Without his dictatorial style, this team will never gel. He tells an assistant coach that kindness and sensitivity will cripple the players, not strengthen them. In the context of this film, he is right.
Is there a larger context?
Marshall Tito ruled the former Yugoslavia for decades. Yugoslavia, during his reign, seen through the filter of the Eastern block nations of Cold War Europe, was a model of stability and progress. The former Yugoslavia contained Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia. Eighty-five years ago it served as the tinderbox that ignited World War I.
Atrocities on the scale of the Rwanda slaughter were unknown when the Belgian and German colonial powers ruled. Perhaps they fed the flames that later erupted in their absence, but while they ruled over these peoples, atrocities were isolated and irregular.
Racial integration in Alabama was accomplished only when the Federal government nationalized the state militia.
The aborigine of Australia were accorded respect when the bright light of the Olympics shown. The status quo is quickly returning.
No Rodney, it seems we can not "just get along." Getting along occurs when it is compelled. Left to our own devices, we'd rather squabble, fight, and slaughter than share a table with those we've learned, for whatever spurious reasons, to despise.
Which brings us back to the Palestinians. Should we stand by or, when the situation becomes critical, invite everyone to camp for a talk, or should we take a more direct approach? Do we have the moral obligation to put a stop to this slaughter? If, as an adult, you come upon two children fighting, do you walk by or grab them by their shirt collars and separate them? The parents of either of those children might decide to lay into you for manhandling their child. They might even sue. The risk in our stepping into Rwanda or the Middle East is greater than a lawsuit. We risk the lives of the soldiers we send to battle. Is the proper question what we risk in taking the action? Or, is the question what is it the right thing to do?
As a child my father told me he would not help a child struck by a car out of fear that the parents might sue him. Even as a child, I recognized the immorality of his stand. I was ashamed. I still am.
Technically, this is a very interesting film. Early on Aronofsky uses a split screen effect to portray the distance separating Harry and Marian. Although they are lying together, Aronofsky inserts a split screen between the two and ever so slightly alters lighting and background to create the impression these two are communicating across a wide gulf. They are, of course. Each lives in a disconnected and self-centered world devoid of love. Harry hocks his mother's TV as she peers through the keyhole of the locked bedroom door as he carts it out. Drug consumption is reduced to a repeated five second snippet of white powder being dumped into a bottle cap, boiling it down, drawing the cooked heroin into the needle and then a close-up of the eyes as they dilate in reaction to the drug. All this is done at fast-forward speed. The person taking the drug is not visible in this process, just the mechanics of it are seen and in a flash. Mom's speed habit is similarly reduced to spare mechanical function. Bottle cap, pill, flip into mouth. No romance, no passion, no thrill. Characters are seen pre-drug and post-drug and none of it is attractive.
I'm not sure the story carries any redemptive value, though. Perhaps Darren Aronofsky, the writer and director, is exorcising some demons. I imagine, as a cautionary tale, some potential addict's descent into hell is postponed by the watching. In the end, though, we are left only with the hollow satisfaction of knowing, by comparison, our life could be worse. At least we're not drug addicts. Perhaps Mr. Aronofsky is trying to tell us the same thing he tried to tell us in his first film, Pi. That was a film about a fellow obsessed with connections between Pi and ancient Jewish mysticism. Maybe Requiem is not about addiction but about obsession. Do our obsessions rob us of our humanity? Do our preoccupations with money or sex or religion or status serve to separate us from each other as clearly as the characters in Requiem are separated by their obsession with drugs? Are our obsessions merely more palatable? More socially acceptable?
Resident Evil 03.17.02
Night of the Living Dead meets John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars on the set of Alien. Milla Jovovich (The Messenger), Michelle Rodriguez (Girlfight), and a whole host of what must be daytime soap stars take on the living dead in an underground secret research facility run by The Corporation. They take a train to the facility (Ghosts of Mars) where they are attacked by really hungry undead (Night of the...) who got that way because The Corporation was underwriting nasty research on genetically altered bunnies (Alien and Night of the Lemur). Ms. Jovovich displays more than her Maybelline contract head shots and though she may never be mistaken for Meryl Streep, she is an accomplished actress. Ms. Rodriguez is delightful as a macho cop with attitude.
Gore abounds, the scary stuff is all startle and the story is entirely patched together from films past. Nothing, not even the computer's name (the Red Queen), is original. No humor relieves the relentlessly plodding plot. This is moviemaking of the fast food variety.
I made the early show at one of Magic Johnson's theaters. My first experience at Magic's foray into capitalism. The the guy in front of me got ninety one dollar bills in change (all she had), the popcorn was from last night, they were "sold out" of bottled water, the theater was hot until about midway through (the AC must be manually activated when the manager shows up), and the bathrooms are centrally located (that means a sixty yard trek from seat to bathroom and back). I would think Magic would have been horrified at the conditions. But I digress, again.
Resident Evil: Apocalypse 09.10.04
Where Resident Evil at least made an effort to present a story line, Apocalypse chomps its way through a series of patched together action sequences leading up to a silly "showdown" between Alice and Nemesis. Nemesis is Alice's boyfriend from the original (and I use that term loosely), morphed into a Creature From the Black Lagoon With Super-Size Mouth and Heavy Coat. He is based on RoboCop as we see traces of his human original but still we could care less. The Umbrella Corporation (another stroke of originality) is still busy creating bio/viral weapons out of otherwise unsuspecting citizens and dang it all, once again unleashes the zombie virus on an unsuspecting population. This time the population is of the city Raccoon. No one seems to think that's an odd name for a city but then Umbrella Corporation doesn't raise any eyebrows either. Anyway, Alice and a team of super SWAT folks (minus Michelle Rodriguez and plus Sienna Guillory) wander around Raccoon town looking for a lost little girl. They encounter all sorts of living dead people but they move really slowly and all have a terrible limp. Seems death causes the left leg to drag so they aren't the real threat. Nemesis is and man is he ugly. Anyway, yadda yadda yadda, lots of dead people get shot in the head, lots of living people get bitten by the dead (the dead are really hungry and Raccoon town has no restaurants) and Milla Jovovich does lots of Trinity/Selene (Carrie-Anne Moss of Matrix/Kate Beckinsale of Underworld) jump kicks and elbow smashes and big handgun trick shots. Now that would be a movie for every hormone flush young male, Alice, Trinity, and Selene team up and take on Lawnmower Man and Swamp Creature. No story necessary, just some cool leather outfits and plenty of macha fisticuffs. But I digress.
I have no idea why Apocalypse made it into the title, only raccoon town was ever threatened, some odd gargoyle like creatures appear about half way through and from nowhere with no attempt to explain them, we have no idea why Umbrella Corp is developing super weapons as they seem to be the only power in the world, and, most distressingly, courtesy of a bizarre tacked on ending, we are set up for yet another Resident Evil sequel. We can only hope for a true Apocalypse in the next go-round wiping out everyone associated with this dead on arrival corpse.
Resident Evil: Extinction 09.28.07
Going all the way to one "star" is unusual. As few get one as get three, most are a two, not great but some redemptive value. Good acting or interesting cinematography. And despite my imaginary avuncular relationship to Luc Besson's significant other, Extinction is a one. Why oh why didn't I read my review of the sequel to Resident Evil? So our heroine Alice is roaming the desert southwest on a cool motorcycle and happens to run into some old buds from Apocalypse. The old buds are working for Claire (Ali Larter, the twin from Heroes) who runs a convoy of heavy smokers on the lookout for survivors, food, fuel, and cigarettes - in reverse order. The old evil doc happens to have relocated to the desert southwest as well so we're good to go. I almost did, well I did. I have no idea how it ends but when Mike Epps gets infected there was no more reason to hang around. With him undead comic relief dies and I couldn't bear to watch the showdown between the newly empowered doc and Alice. Someone tell me how it ends. Or don't.
Riding In Cars With Boys 10.24.01
I almost skipped this one because the previews made it look a little silly. Had I known it was a Penny Marshall film (she directed Big) I would have gone opening weekend. A clear-eyed look at decisions that derail us and mistakes that wreck us. Redemption is always just around the corner in a Penny Marshall film, but we never get there without some serious losses along the way. Drew Barrymore is excellent, Steve Zahn entirely believable as a drug addled moron (here's hoping he's a Harvard grad underneath), James Woods is wonderful as Drew's dad, but when Rosie Perez appears near the end, she absolutely steals the show. She is scary and funny and sad and seems to be mired in the bitterness and resentment from which everyone else manages to escape. An excellent film that should make everyone who sees it a better person.
Feardotcom, released earlier this year, is about a website that, when viewed, kills the viewer in two days. Designed from beyond that great server in the sky by the long dead but restless victim of a serial killer, the site contains secret clues to the location of the web mistresses dead but undecomposed body. The person who can decipher the clues, find her body, identify and kill the killer will not suffer the fate of all the poor saps who visited the website without deciphering the clues, they were killed, you see.
Now, along comes The Ring, about a killer videotape. Seven days instead of two. Also designed by a dead person with lots of clues leading the viewer to her dead but undecomposed body. Like the chicken and the egg, who cares which came first? The only question is, would you prefer a nice fluffy omelet or deep fried chicken strips? The Ring is the fluffy omelet and Feardot the greasy strips. Both are bad for you. Both are scary movies of the Wal-Mart variety. That is to say they operate with pride at the cheapest possible level. Scary movies can be scary through a variety of mechanisms (see The Blair Witch Project for a discussion) and these two choose the jump cut mechanism. Variations include the mirrored medicine cabinet, the zoom, and flashlight illuminating methods. You and I practiced this technique as children when we hid behind a corner and jumped out shouting "BOO" at our unsuspecting sibling. Little miniature plot twists like drowning horses, divorced parents, etc. are used as filler around the regular and utterly predictable "BOO's" that comprise the hollow core of The Ring. Might have made a good book but definitely makes a terrible film.
Ring Two 10.07.05
Naomi Watts made the eventual viewing of what promised to be a cheap retread of an interesting original theme mandatory. She is utterly compelling on screen. I found myself wondering what she must have been like in school, if there were hints of her talent back then. This during one of the few non-scary interludes. The director, Hideo Nakata, made the original and a sequel in Japanese. This sequel is different than the Japanese sequel. I've been confused about this film from the beginning (see my review of The Ring for confirmation) and though the films seem pretty straightforward, the story and its international iterations lose me entirely. No matter. It had Naomi Watts and that made watching the dreadfully morose David Dorfman (the child target of the curse) tolerable. A surprise cameo by Sissy Spacek didn't hurt.
The Road 11.27.09
A few years ago a tropical storm popped up in the Gulf and drifted slowly over Houston. Houston is as flat a piece of land as you're likely to see outside Bonne- or Jackson- ville. Houston sits about sixty miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico at an elevation of sixty feet. For every fifteen hundred steps you take toward Houston from the Gulf you can take one step up. Really, really flat. The landscape is littered with what the drummer form the Atlanta Rhythm Section once described to me as ditches. We call them bayous, cut on the diagonal and pointed toward the coast. They help to drain the annual fifty odd inches of rain that aren't absorbed by the clay like ground of this part of the country. Designed to sluice two inches an hour into the Gulf of Mexico, anything beyond that and the water has nowhere to go but up the sidewalk and into your home.
The storm slowed just north of the city, intensified and drifted back to stall for ten hours. The meteorologists began talking about the atmosphere's capacity to hold rainfall. The bayous were already sluicing their capacity when this big red splotch parked in the center of the Houston/Galveston radar screen and dumped four inches an hour overnight.
I watched streets flood, then freeways and around three in the morning the water began creeping toward the front steps, all three of them. Halfway up the yard I pushed a railroad spike into the ground to mark the high water point. An hour later the water was lapping at the front and back doors. By now the street in front of our house was nearly three feet deep. It occurred to me only then that come dawn we would join the throng of idiots waving from rooftops, too dumb to leave before and too helpless to save ourselves we would be, like Stella, dependent on the kindness of strangers.
In the nightmare inhabited by the good guys in Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, strangers fall into two categories, predator or prey. Father and Son are making their way to the coast where they hope to - survive? All the plants and animals are dead, victims of the nuclear winter. Canned goods have all but disappeared and the only remaining food source is bipedal. It's a ghastly story and meant to be so.
Another end of the world film in current release is 2012. The difference between the two visions calls to mind the chasm separating our last two vice-presidents. One, a churlish, scheming cynic comfortable with "the dark side," the other a cheery optimist. One gazes at the world with a sneer, the other a smile. The survivors in Roland Emmerich's 2012 make their way to a row of gleaming phallus and launch into the flood with bright hopes for a new tomorrow. The survivors in McCarthy's The Road make their way to a dirty beach only to push ahead through the grime, cold and hunger.
Faced with the choice, would I take the easy way out or struggle to survive? Impossible to know, and unlike the hundreds of millions in the world's darker corners daily confronting that choice, I can speculate, free from all but existential choices.
Road to Perdition 07.13.02
Yet another magnificently realized vision by the profoundly gifted and twisted director Sam Mendes. From the opening scene of Michael, Jr. (played by yet another talented child actor, Tyler Hoechlin) alone on the beach, center frame against the ocean, to the slaughter in the rain, to the shots through the Maguire's viewfinder (Jude Law in yet another perfectly realized character), visuals are paramount. Cinematographer Conrad Hall (American Beauty, A Civil Action - the firebombing of the lake, Butch Cassidy, In Cold Blood) may be Mendes hidden super power. Born in Tahiti, son of the author of Mutiny on the Bounty, Hall has been perfecting his craft since the 1950's. He is as talented as anyone in the industry and at 76 he may not have too many more masterpieces left to deliver.
Taking second stage to the visuals are the issues: loyalty, love between father and son, and the life choices we make, regret and come to accept.
The characters come in third. Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) is a mob enforcer working for John Rooney (Paul Newman). Sullivan is Rooney's defacto adopted son. Rooney's real son is a weak and evil critter played by Daniel Craig. Stanley Tucci plays Capone lieutenant Frank Nitti. We don't see Al Capone or Eliot Ness and precious few officers of the law. This is not their story, anyway, it is the story of fathers and sons, Rooney and Sullivan, Rooney and Rooney junior, Sullivan and Sullivan junior. The acting is impeccable all around. This is a masterful production and properly enters near the top of the gangster genre films.
The issues Mendes chooses to deal must be seen in the context of the characters. These are all immoral mobster murderers. In the same way his first feature film, American Beauty, used an embezzling father, philandering mother, drug dealer son, and nihilist daughter to tell his story, Road to Perdition uses murdering mobsters. And makes them all engaging, if not charming characters. Who failed to laud Kevin Spacey's decision to blackmail the boss in American Beauty? How can anyone fault Hanks' decision to seek revenge on the man who murders his wife and child? Loyalty is manifested in ways that turn the stomach. The love between Rooney and his malevolent child make us want to turn our head. The life choices these characters make are bad choices and the results are worse. Yet we want to like them. This is twisted and Mendes is doing the twisting. He presents his worldview in a magnificent and compelling package, and therein is the problem. Mendes is a bizarro version of Spielberg. Where Spielberg celebrates life, Mendes drags us into the gutter and makes us like his broken and miserable characters. Something is deeply wrong with this mans life view.
Rock Star 09.08.01
Rock Star is loosely based on the real story of a "heavy metal" band called Judas Priest. Heavy metal, for those born before 1945 and after 1990, is a sub-genre of rock and roll best described in much the same was as chemistry books define heavy metal - a metallic element of a relatively high density, toxic at low doses, fatal at high. Also described as head-banger music, as its fans and some of its propagators tend to throw their heads back and forth in time to the music. The heavy metal beat, therefore, is restricted to a range of between 2 and 5 beats per second lest the listener appear to be dozing off on the one hand or suffer minor concussions on the other. The music is loud and dominated by electric guitar. Chords are few in number, melody is avoided at all cost, and vocals are often screamed at the top of ones lungs. The subjects of heavy metal songs can be varied but generally fall into either the sex or meaninglessness/cruelty of life category. These categories can sometimes be confused. A certain defensiveness may be detected on the part of heavy metal aficionados, as the sub-genre is often perceived as little more than a backdrop to the beer-swigging-blue-collar-Friday-night-fight scene. Some genuinely gifted musicians can be found in the heavy metal world. The subject band of Rock Star, Judas Priest, does not lay claim to the gifted musician title. Before the release of Rock Star, Judas Priest's claim to fame, or infamy, was in a much darker realm. The family of a young suicide victim attempted to gain recompense in court from them, claiming the bands lyrics drove their son to suicide. This chapter of the bands history is not covered. Instead, their plucking of an obscure US musician as the replacement for their lead singer is the subject of this, the latest Marky Mark vehicle of the summer of 2001.
Like John "Cougar" Mellancamp before him, Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg has reverted to his given name now that fame has found him. I will always prefer Marky Mark and do not believe a catchy name should detract from the seriousness with which a talent is taken. (Just as I do not believe twisted syntax should necessarily detract from a writer's message.) I don't think J Lo or Puff Daddy or Artist Former Known As Prince, or Prince, or Cher or even Ringo should feel shame over their marketing monikers.
Jennifer Anniston plays the citizen lead singer's love interest/manager and the two of them find themselves precipitously plunged into the hedonistic lifestyle of rock and roll stars. Jealousies, groupies, drugs, and motorbikes take their toll on the once happy couple. Jennifer Anniston acquits herself well but may take some time to lose the cutesy image associated with her eight years as a prime time sitcom comedian. Mark Wahlberg's abundant charm comes through as loud and clear as a Verdi soprano solo. He may not possess the acting skill of a DeNiro or even Phillip Seymour Hoffman (he played the rock music critic in Almost Famous, another "classic" rock vehicle). He does possess more than his share of charisma, though, and as long as his roles remain as varied as they have to date, we can expect to be watching Marky Mark for some time to come. I look forward to it.
Remake of an old James Caan film based on a short story about an ultra-violent sport of the future, Rollerball. Based loosely on Roller Derby (a charming game played by two teams roller skating around a figure-eight track wreaking havoc on each other), Rollerball allows motorcycles on the track with two teams of in-line skaters. Throw a big metal ball into a big metal shield and you score. The other team will try to stop you by almost any means imaginable. The sport itself, however, is not what's under indictment in this choppy story. It is the evil team owners who will stop at nothing to get the ratings up.
The James Caan role (super jock with a strong sense of justice and fair play) is played by Chris Klein, the milquetoast candidate for class president in Election. Mr. Klein never quite measures up to the tough guy standard set by James Caan in the original. LL Cool J as his buddy is more believable, until we learn he's actually an accountant with two kids and a wife back home. Jean Reno (the French secret service guy from Godzilla and the hit man from The Professional), is the evil team owner and Naveen Andrews (Kip from The English patient) his even more evil first lieutenant.
This could have been a halfway decent indictment of professional sports (something in desperate need of indicting) but is little more than a testosterone treatment for adolescent boys. Oh well.
Overwhelming cast, from James Gandolfini, Eddie Izzard, Christopher Walken, to Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker and Kate Winslet. Ms. Winslet steals the show as Gandolfini's sleazy love interest. It is a musical in the tradition of nothing I've seen. This is an entirely different film with wonderful songs, intelligent and biting dialogue and crashingly great acting. John Turturro wrote and directed. This will be a cult classic only because it is too different to be commercially successful. In the age of Survivor, The Next Top Model and the Smackdown should we expect any different? With every other institution collapsing around us how enormously refreshing that film can still bring us something different, meaningful, and first rate. I am encouraged and that says a lot these days.
The Royal Tenenbaums 12.30.01
The last time Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson collaborated on a story, the result was Rushmore, an odd comedy about the havoc a precocious teen wreaks on a high school campus and the lives of those he encounters. These two films share havoc wreaking, oddity, and Bill Murray in a supporting role. The havoc in The Royal Tenenbaum's is wreaked by Royal (Gene Hackman) and Eli Cash (Owen Wilson). Royal's havoc is a result of his self-centered callous disregard for others, especially his wife and children. Eli's havoc is the result of an affinity for Mescaline and marijuana.
The other characters in this farce are Royal's children, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow as a wreck of a playwright), Chas (Ben Stiller as a wreck of a financial wizard), and Richie (Luke Wilson, Owen's little brother, as a wreck of a tennis player), Royals's wife (underplayed in this otherwise way over-the-top comic farce by Angelica Huston), and her suitor, the accountant, Mr. Sherman (Danny Glover in the only other underplayed role). Heading the family is Gene Hackman, a former litigator disbarred as a result of Chas's lawsuit, brought when Royal steals Chas's money.
This is The Philadelphia Story on a double-dose of Mescaline. The love rectangle between Richie, his adopted sister Margot, Eli, and Margot's charlatan psychiatrist husband (Bill Murray), is bizarre at best. From the sky blue polyester beltless pants worn by Eli in every scene, to the wooden finger on Margot's right hand, nothing is normal about this family or this film. This is an original work. Owen Wilson continues to impress and amaze.
The Ruins 04.05.08
The first to die was the foreigner who spoke no English, then the foreigner who spoke some English. He was followed by the boyfriend who initiated sex and close on his heels his willing girlfriend. The medical student sacrificed himself so his bookish girlfriend could live. The mindless, languageless villagers arrayed around the base of the pyramid preventing escape were bad enough but the man-eating bouganvilla with a cruel streak was the piece de resistance. With its evil stamen it could imitate the sound of a cell phone or even a whiny girlfriend. With its powereful stamen it could drag off pieces of and even whole people. If only they hadn't left the safety of their resort hotel. Ah well.
My first exposure to Brett Easton Ellis was a review of the film American Psycho I read in Time magazine. The next was in a bookstore, I picked up his novel American Psycho and read a few pages at random. Seemed well written but narrow. Then I saw American Psycho the movie. Today I saw Rules of Attraction. Another inner dialogue, but this time multiple voices, multiple characters.
Bateman's "brother" is delivered to us and this time he is a college student, drug dealer. The general impression is what appears to be typical Ellison. Empty, desperate, superficial lives lived in shared pretension. The longer I watched, though, the more I saw me and Bob and all the people I knew. I can't speak for the girls, though, as I never really understood, or understand them. I use "though" a lot as a a tool to establish distance or maybe safety. But I digress.
Are we, after all, as shallow as Rules of Attraction would seem to say? What happens that we can settle into lives with the opposite sex? How can this be? Do we define the rules early on and then agree to live by them? Do we wrestle at some level neither of us understand? I should read Mr. Ellis. I wouldn't have, but he seems to address more than teen-age angst questions.
Teeth bared in an evil sneer, goggles down over narrowed eyes, oily sweat beading on the forehead, thumb again and again pressing the firing button, hurling bullets at the sweet faced teen age country boy as he helplessly parachutes to the ground. This was the enemy. Barely human. Merciless. Above all else, foreign.
It was this characterization as inhuman, suicidal maniacs, willing to die for an emperor(!), that helped tip the scales in favor of dropping nuclear weapons on Japanese population centers. A mainland invasion would cost hundreds of thousands of American boy's lives. After all, this blood-lusting, crazed people would fight to the last man woman and child. And look what they did to our boys at Pearl Harbor, my God, look what they did at Bataan!
Who did the earthmovers bury under the sand in Kuwait? Tens of thousands of young men? No, evil Iraqi pigs.
The transformation from fellow human being to something else. Something foreign. Demonization. A key ingredient in genocide. An essential element of war. A all too often used tactic in any serious dispute. The use of characterizations crafted not to reveal truths but designed to deceive.
Christians demonize Muslims. Workers demonize management. Wives demonize husbands.
Reduced to base stereotypes and deprived of their essential humanity, "others" become easy to dismiss, disrespect, even destroy.
The ability and proclivity to reduce people and peoples to stereotypes has plagued humankind from the beginning of recorded history. In order to strip another of their dignity or even their life, they must first be stripped of those things that make them like you and I, their humanity.
The demonization of one dressed in the armor of a shared humanity is impossible. Remove that armor, reduce to stereotype, and the brakes on our potential for cruelty begin to fail.
The willful blindness to our common humanity lies at the core of the greatest catastrophes in history. From the marauding Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan to the goose stepping storm troopers of Adolph Hitler, the perpetrators of horror had to first reduce to the enemy to sub-human status.
The movement down this slope is not accomplished in a single headlong rush. It occurs in increments. A whispered rumor, a knowing look, an inflammatory pamphlet; they all serve the common goal. Occasionally, however, progress down this slope is swift and dramatic. The anti-Japanese propaganda films of Frank Capra are an example. Capra's films were made willingly at the request of a grateful government. He did his patriotic duty.
Others seem to contribute to the dehumanization of a people for no apparent reason beyond their own fanaticism.
Still others have a profit motive.
William Friedkin spoke to his desire to appeal to the widest possible audience in an interview a few years ago. Perhaps it is this desire to pander to the widest possible audience that drives him to his reliance on stereotype in his latest effort, Rules of Engagement. The results he achieves in this well made drama certainly include a giant leap down the slope of dehumanization. He has ripped out the hand brake and thrown it from the car. To make a hit film? To make a buck?
In a telling scene, Tommy Lee Jones attempts to engage a sad one-legged Yemeni child in conversation.
Speak English, he asks.
What's your name, he smiles.
Murderer, she responds in her native tongue (we get the sub-title).
Is that your name, he asks sweetly.
The irony is as heavy and subtle as an anvil.
She lost her leg as a result of Samuel L. Jackson's order to fire into a crowd of Yemeni protestors. We later see her, in a flashback, emptying her handgun at the Marines guarding the American embassy. Even the apparently innocent of this God-forsaken people are rabid killers. A Yemeni doctor appears on the scene and ushers Tommy Lee through the hospital filled with the injured and orphaned children. The good doctor later turns out to be a lying shill for the terrorist conspirators. The balance of the Arabs characters are represented as screaming, gun-toting fanatics. They even manage to shoot up the American flag.
In one particularly offensive scene, a former North Vietnamese commanding officer, fresh from his admission that he too would have shot a POW in cold blood to convince his enemy to issue an order, salutes our hero. Our hero returns the salute, warrior to warrior, vindicated and validated.
The messages of this film are both banal and horrific.
Arabs are crazed savages (even the women and children).
Murder to save Americans lives is not really murder.
This is a slope bearing a remarkable resemblance to one traveled before.
One we are pledged to never forget.
Running With Scissors 11.05.06
Think this is a comedy? You would if you'd seen the trailers. Maybe I've been too close to mental illness all my life but there wasn't much I could laugh at. I saw The Queen recently with a friend who asked me if I thought it was funny. Not at all, I said. Good, she said, I was put off by the audience tittering. I think the only time I enjoyed seeing a film with an audience was Toy Story 2. It was all kids and they were delightful. Adult audiences tend to see awkward as funny and readily laugh at the cruelest depravity. The first few minutes of The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain are a paean to dysfunction and the audience died laughing. I squirmed.
In any event (and not the more current and incorrect in the event), Running With Scissors is, or was for me, excruciatingly painful. Watching Annette Bening descend into a drug addled madness while imagining herself a great talent undiscovered as the mother of this story's author, I wondered what well of sadness she could tap to bring this awfully sad character to life. She signs her son Augusten over to an even more disturbed shrink, Finch, and young Augusten spends a year or so in the confines of the doctors extended disturbed family. From Jill Clayburgh's dab of liner under her left eye to Evan Rachel Woods red-eyed reaction to possible escape, no hope is offered for anyone caught in this swirling mass of madness. As an allegory for our time I get it, as a comedy, I don't.
Rush Hour 2 08.15.01
I normally drive between five and fifteen miles an hour over the speed limit on the freeway. Where I live, anything less puts you in jeopardy. Keeping up with the flow of traffic, they call it. Even at seventy plus, though, cars regularly whiz by me at speeds between eighty and one hundred. Often these super-speeders are driving a Beemer or Binz or F-whatever pick-up or one of the myriad Suburban Ultimate Virus steroid-enhanced environment-altering flood-defying Sadaam and the Seven Sister-enriching monstrosities that are the vehicle of choice for Captains of Consumerism. And then there are the Plymouth Neons, Toyota Echos, and Hyundai Accents that speed by me. Speedometer pegged at the maximum (ninety), RPM gauge lost in the red hash marks, wheels about to fly off, engine beginning to fuse into a single block of molten metal. Crazed punks push these poor cars far beyond their limit blissfully oblivious to the physics involved in miniature replicas of internal combustion engines tied into plastic frames by wax enhanced kite string. This is the image in my head as I sit through Rush Hour 2.
The vehicle for this good cop/crazy cop sequel to the rip-off of the sequel to the sequel to the sequel of Lethal Weapon (Danny Glover/Jackie Chan/good cop and Mel Gibson/Chris Carter/ crazy cop) is as lame as the shrieking Neon, stretched beyond its narrow range of performance. Our heroes are after the guys who stole the plates from the printing press our government gave to the Shah of Iran in the pre-Ayatollah days. Yes, it seems we crated up one of the printing presses from the US Mint in Philadelphia and presented it to the Shah as a gift! Two decades later, the plates surface in Hong Kong and $100 bills begin to proliferate faster than cheap cars after a tax rebate. The counterfeits are so good that fourteen of fifteen banks cannot tell them from the real deal. The fifteenth bank apparently knows the secret revealed to our heroes by the sexy undercover Secret Service Agent (the Secret Service as a division of the US Treasury, protects our currency as well as the President) that real money burns black while counterfeit burns red. The folks who managed to get their hand on the original plates and printing press cannot afford the ink that burns black, I guess.
The real crime in all this, of course, is the short shrift paid to the utterly ridiculous plot device. Like the absurd plot from The Score, wherein the French government attempts to smuggle a national treasure into Canada in the hollowed out leg of a grand piano, the entire enterprise is undercut by a nonsensical plot.
Rush Hour 2 is a comedy, to be sure, but as Goldfinger and The Gambit can attest, a clever story can do wonders for an otherwise ordinary film. As we learn from Goldfinger's nemesis, James Bond, even if he could get into Fort Knox, it would take days to transport the gold reserves out. Goldfinger's plan is to detonate a nuclear device in the heart of the vault, rendering the gold inaccessible for thousands of years from the radioactive fallout. Fiendishly clever, no? Michael Caine in The Gambit, with Shirley Maclaine, appears hell-bent to steal a priceless statue but will only pretend to steal it so he can sell replicas to greedy collectors around the world. Goldfinger's Beemer and The Gambit's SUV compare favorably with the puny Hyundai of Rush Hour II.
One cute scene of Inspector Lee (Jackie Chan) rocking with Carter's (Chris Tucker) hip-hop notwithstanding, even the captivating charm of Jackie Chan takes a too-small back seat in this micro-compact of a film. Ziyi Zhang, (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), is perfectly villainous as the evil Hu Li and John Lone is barely tolerable as super criminal Ricky Tan. Alan King as Tans Vegas casino-owner partner mails in a cameo.
I was pleased to learn how easily one can make their way into the counting rooms at a Vegas casino. Climb atop the hospital food delivery cart-looking-thing that holds the counterfeit plates as it traverses the main floor of the Casino. When the guard exits the counting room, slip in before the door closes. The writer clearly spent hour after hour developing and perfecting this clever aspect. Personally, I prefer the fluorescent paint sprayed on the soles of Robin and the Seven Hoods' shoes as a means of counting room access. Plunge the casino into darkness and follow the glowing footsteps to the money, now there's a touch of clever. It's not A. Conan Doyle, mind you, but it sure beats the stuffings out of writer Jeff Nathanson's pathetic effort. Nathanson's other screenplay (if you don't count the television series Bakersfield PD) is Speed 2. A future work of Nathanson plans Robert DeNiro as an agoraphobic therapist (As Good As It Gets meets Analyze This?). Clearly, the money behind these projects does not see writers as terribly important to the process.
Oh yes, the fight scenes are boring and unimaginative. Maybe we should consider retitling the planned sequel to "Traffic Jam 2 - Out of Gas!"
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