"No, I know I should but I just don't want to see another sensitive and beautiful Asian film," I told my friend. I knew I had to go; this friend is the same one that cried out loud during the penultimate scene from Titanic. I don't mean cry like boo-hoo, I mean cried like, "If she jumps off the stern I'm going to throw up!" People all around us paused in their sniffling to shush her and I sunk into my seat hoping no one I knew was in the theater. Pretty nervy woman but impeccable taste. So I went.
The first half hour was just like what I remembered from the last fourteen Asian films I've seen. Incredibly beautiful and like all the colors in the Counting Crows Mr. Jones, "very very meaningful." The monk tapping away on his prayer drum while the mists envelop the lush woods around the pristine lake, the lake that is home to his one room temple constructed on a floating dock in the center of the deep blue lake surrounded by the deep green forest under the deep blue - well, you get the picture by now, right? I'm constructing my explanation for her as I will spare her feelings but can't lie when Spring turns to Summer and a story suddenly appears where there was only deep beauty. The beauty stays, though, and the story moves us through the remaining seasons. The monk has a charge, a small boy busy tying rocks to a fish, frog, and snake. Giggling as he watches the creatures struggle with their rocks he awakes the next morning to find his Master has tied a rock to his little back. To get the rock off he must find the creatures he tormented yesterday and free them. When the child monk finds the snake dead he wails and his Master tells him the rock will live in his heart forever. I'm sure I was at least as wise as the Monk raising my child but then I had the benefit of a Western education and perspective so I knew all about Ego and Superego and co-dependence and transference and all those other helpful lessons so handy and useful in child-rearing. It is, of course, that perspective that made me initially wave off this movie as too beautiful and meaningful.
Spring Summer is about Buddism and karma and lust and love and all those things for which I have no time. Probably the most attractive thing about Buddism is its reverence for life. Buddism teaches all life is sacred. In the first book of the Torah we learn God gave all life to us. We get to name it, tame it, eat it as long as we don't eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Buddism would have us believe we can progress toward enlightenment through a concerted and life long effort. It will take us several lives and so we'll need to come back over and over until we can reach that state of perfect enlightenment and harmony. We know all this from Siddhartha, a young Prince who walked away from his privileged life to seek enlightenment, reaching it became the Budda. Our Western faith, at least the Pauline version upon which Christianity rests, would have us believe all our efforts will come to naught but for the grace of God. I don't believe that was what Jesus the Christ was telling us but that is an argument for another time, more time. Suffice to say Buddism is about a hope that depends on the hoper where Christianity is about a hope that depends on the Other. Karma, the belief that your actions for good or evil comprise your gross spirit, is at the heart of Spring Summer and it is a lesson taught skillfully and elegantly, if not always gently. The child Monk will carry that snake's stone in his heart and we watch him struggle through the seasons of his life. The entire film takes place on the lake and surrounding woods. The outside world intrudes twice, once with uplifting and then catastrophic results, and again in almost comic relief as two gun-toting, cell-phone wielding police make a call. The title gives much away as the film ends when the child Monk, now grown is brought an infant to teach the ways of the Holy One. But Westerner, it's not about how it ends, it's the way it gets there that matters. Get it? I'm working on it.
I have previously questioned our collective reluctance to explore the origins of the vitriolic obsession some Islamic Fundamentalists have toward the United States and I fault our unwillingness to assume any responsibility for the slaughter of innocents on September 11. Our perceived "national interests" have often led us to support totalitarian and cruelly repressive governments. The Shah was restored to power in Iran in 1953 and was an American ally until he was again overthrown by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. The Iranian Embassy hostage crisis was clearly connected to our support of the Shah. Closer to home, Manuel Noriega, former dictator of Panama, once served as a CIA operative. His drug trafficking and brutal repression aside, he was "anti-Communist," and that was sufficient reason for the US to support him. The thousands of Panamanian citizens unlawfully imprisoned and murdered during his reign as military dictator were insufficient to cause us to act. That is until a US Marine was murdered in the streets of Panama. Our support and assistance in the assassination of Chile's Salvadore Allende and the institution of the military regime of Augusto Pinochet has contributed to the fear and loathing many South Americans feel towards the US. The Shining Path of Peru, one of the world's most ruthless and brutal terrorist organizations, is undoubtedly bolstered by America's interventionist involvement in the political structures of Central and South America.
Our Gulf War, ostensibly fought to liberate the people of Kuwait from Sadaam Hussein, was, at the least, heavily influenced by our "national interests" as they are manifested in Mideast oil. We felt no similar compulsion to rescue the people of Cambodia from the murderous madness of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Similarly, we saw no reason to involve ourselves in the "internal strife" between Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda that left nearly one million hacked to death in 1994.
What should our response be then, when some of these chickens come home to roost? The options are fairly simple and straightforward: one, do nothing; two, retaliate against those responsible; and three, begin a world-wide campaign against "terrorists" everywhere. Doing nothing, although true to the highest moral calling of figures like Ghandi, Bhudda, and Christ, would mean finding a way to tolerate additional attacks against innocent men, women, and children. Acquiescing to the additional slaughter of innocent men, women, and children, is not a tenable position. Waging a war against terrorism everywhere sounds good, even noble, but we won't do it. Some of the terrorists work for us. And we need Chinese markets too badly to engage the Chinese government in a discussion of their activities in Tibet.
So, we retaliate against those responsible. We have precision bombed the Taliban into collapse if not submission. Were the Taliban responsible? As atrocious a government as the Taliban were, they did not plan, train, or arm the terrorists that attacked us September 11. They allowed them to operate, certainly. The terrorists leader, Osama bin Laden, was a heavy financial contributor to their government. The swiftest path to Osama and Al Quaeda necessitated the destruction of the Taliban government. In the most simple terms, we needed that government out of the way so we could begin a cave to cave search for Osama bin Laden without the impediment of an organized military resistance. Do we have that right? Should the freedoms and liberties we enjoy and take for granted as American citizens stop at our borders? Should those liberties apply to non-citizens within our borders? Is our system of justice not up to the task of trying those responsible? Is the military tribunal a substitute for summary execution? Is there one code of ethics within our borders and another outside? Is international law only applicable when it suits our purpose? What obligates us to fight fairly when our opponent obeys no rules? Should our response be tempered by our past "mistakes?" These, the tough questions, are with me as I settle in to watch The Spy Game.
Directed by Ridley Scott's brother Tony (Top Gun, Crimson Tide, The Fan, and Enemy of the State) and written by Michael Frost Beckner (new TV series, The Agency), The Spy Game gives us an "up-close and personal" look at terrorism, assassination, and the players responsible. Predictably, the government bureaucrats hide behind policy and protocol while the players act out the drama that is international politics. Brad Pitt plays the idealistic CIA recruit Tom Bishop and Robert Redford the retiring field operative Nathan Muir.
With the exception of Tony Scott's penchant for choppy and swooping zooms to segue scene or perspective changes and an over-the-top car ride through Beirut, The Spy Game is filmmaking at its best. It captivates, entertains and thrills while raising issues and consciousness. Beckner's script rarely sermonizes and is always believable. Scott's direction is accomplished and intuitive. The CIA bureaucrats thrusts and Muir's adroit parrying are deliciously delivered as subtext in an otherwise "friendly" discussion at Langley. The story is told in flashback. Scott's recreation of DaNang, Beirut, and a present-day maximum security Chinese prison are masterful.
The difficult questions aren't answered by this film, of course, but they are asked. The personalization of the issues, albeit by Hollywood, helps to frame the answers. The doctor whose parents are killed by terrorists, the international aid worker with an "accidental" murder on her record, the California kid who becomes a sniper for "the good guys," and the career agent compelled to choose between competing loyalties all help to make newspaper headlines and CNN scrolling text banners a little more real and a little more accessible. The answers Bishop and Muir present in The Spy Game arise from instinct and not intellectualism.
And for those of us in the real world -
There are good guys and bad guys. The good guys have bad in them and the bad guys have good in them. Some of the good people turn out to be bad and some of the bad, good. In all this confusion, how do we choose? As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said when asked to define pornography, "I can't, but I'll know it when I see it." Maybe there is no metric for determining the right course of action. Maybe there is no right course. Maybe there's just the course we choose. And if that choice is based on what we all saw on September 11, the course of action is clear, even if the broader questions of ethics and morality remain unanswered. Perhaps our policies are corrupted by economic self-interest, and maybe our sense of right and wrong has been eroded by our own failed morality. These are reasons for reflection and correction but not justifications for inaction.
The actions that we take must, however, be born from public discussion and debate. Justice must be done in daylight. The "wanted dead or alive" cowboy mentality has no place in a society founded on liberty and law. Our way of life and the system of justice upon which it rests must not be set aside in our headlong pursuit of this icon of evil.
The opening shot tracks from a mile or so out to sea, into the coast and along it to the castle at the waters edge, up the side of the castle to the bedroom window of a young girl staring wistfully into the evening sunset. All without a single edit. Reminds me of the all time great opening shot from Hitchcock's Frenzy - from outside and above London, to the Thames, under the bridge, up a street to an alley, along the alley to an apartment stair and up it to a door. Screams are heard behind the door and the camera retires to the busy street where we watch the London citizenry pass unaware of the murder committed just a flight of stairs away. All without a single edit. Before I can lament the supplanting of all the careful planning and complicated preparation Hitchcock went through with the special effects that made Robert Rodriguez's shot work, I am swept up in his latest work of fancy, Spy Kids. This is the same director who brought us From Dusk to Dawn (a gore filled horror film of vampires and vampire killers) and The Faculty (evil aliens possess the teachers at the local high and make them kill and eat their students). Now he delivers a PG rated story of two kids trying to save their spy parents from a horrible fate as mutated Saturday morning sidekicks to Floop, a Pee-Wee Herman look-alike on steroids and bad acid. PG may be a little light for the mutations and scary thumb creatures that inhabit Floop's castle. The messages Rodriguez (he wrote and directed) delivers run the ratings gamut - marriage is difficult and scary, kids are good, family matters, keeping a family together is all-important. The messages are often delivered by Rodriguez's characters looking full face into the camera. He takes no chances that we'll miss his message. Every character has a weakness, dad keeps too many secrets, little brother is afraid of his shadow, big sister, despite her bravado, has a secret weakness, mom, well, mom is perfect. Hey Robert, wanna tell us anything?
Antonio Banderas is wonderful as dad and the kids are believable (Daryl Sabara as Juni and Alexa Vega as big sister Carmen whose gloriously full, "I don't use it, it's too long," Hispanic name is the password to the safe house), but the film belongs to Carla Gugino as mom. She moved to New York at fifteen and worked as a model until the lifestyle started to consume her. She moved to Los Angeles and consulted her aunt, Carol Merill from Let's make A Deal, who enrolled her in acting classes. She's been in a dozen movies and spent some time as a regular on Spin City. She quit series TV to return focus on her movie career. Lucky us!
As I recall, the original Spy Kids thought their parents boring bourgeois types and became Spy Kids to save them from the evil mastermind, Floop. By the time Robert Rodriguez's sequel comes to us, the OSS has created a Spy Kids unit and our kids, Juni (Daryl Sabara) and Carmen (Alexa Vega), are at the top of the OSS Junior league. Dad (Antonio Banderas) is about to be named head of the OSS and mom (Carla Gugino) and the kids are all excited. Enter Donnogan (Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge) and his kids, Gary (Matthew O'Leary) and Gerti (Haley Joel Osment's sister Emily) Giggles.
The original was, well, original. The sequel is terrible. Where the original built a story, dramatic tension, and characters from the ground up, the sequel starts at a fever pitch and cranks relentlessly on until the obvious end. The villains are plain vanilla, the story is a tissue thin rip-off of Jurassic Park, even the digitalized "action" sequences are unimaginative and flawed. In one glaring example, Juni takes on a skeleton with a sword while his eyes focus on a point about fifteen degrees to the left and over the skeleton. In another clever stroke of originality, the skeleton is awakened by Juni's theft of a precious amulet. Modular movie making: Insert Action Sequence G into Act Three, Scene Four (if Action Sequence G has previously been applied, Select an Action Sequence from the Bucket 'O Action and slap into place, no editing required).
Cameos abound and are of no help. Ricardo Montalban, Holland Taylor, and Bill Paxton contribute virtually nothing to the story, Steve Buscemi plays the Richard Attenborough character from Jurassic Park while Cheech Marin and Tony Shaloub lifelessly reprise their roles.
One of the originals best features was Carla Gugino (mom) and she barely surfaces in the sequel. Banderas caricatures his role. OK, maybe I am too harsh, maybe my disappointment is sharpened by my surprise at the quality of the first Spy Kids, and maybe my expectations are too high. Or maybe this is a shameless throw away of a movie designed to make a few bucks off the kids who drag their unsuspecting parents into the theater. Shame and shame again.
What differentiates a short story from a novel? Not the obvious, length, but instead imagine a short story as a slice of and the novel the whole pie. In keeping with the season, look at Scrooge's visit to Christmas past as a short story and A Christmas Carol as the novel. The Squid and the Whale is a short story and as such bears a more exacting burden to present and develop character quickly. Had it been a novel we might have seen the courtship and early years of the marriage between Bernard (Jeff Daniels) and Joan (Laura Linney) and perhaps the adulthood of Frank (Owen Kline) and his older brother Walt (Jesse Eisenberg). But we don't. We see only a few weeks in the lives of this most dysfunctional family. As this is supposedly a true story one can only hope the parents portrayed so brilliantly by Daniels and Linney are long dead. To see oneself on screen as Jeff Daniels presents the wholly self-absorbed and ego maniacal Bernard would surely be cause for familial libel at best and whole sleeping pill bottle quaffing at worst. One would be hard pressed to uncover a more despicable character outside what remains of my remaining blood relatives. As parents, the Berkmans are a formidable pair of narcissistic sociopaths, leaving the ten year old alone for the weekend while encouraging his older brother to sleep around. The parents near criminal neglect of their children isn't the story of course, the story is that the children survive in spite of them.
Star Trek 05.23.09
Surprise, there is life in the Star Trek franchise! Kirk as drunken hoodlum, cool. Yet another silly back story with worm holes and time travel distracts from this novel look at the old gang as youngsters. I couldn't make the Uhuru romantic angle work, though. There isn't a thread of it in the later chapters, TV or film. Oh yeah, it's fiction, I keep forgetting.
Now I think I know why I never watched The Next Generation or Voyager or any of the associated movies. Somewhere between The Wrath of Kahn and The Voyage Home I began to lose interest. Which one had the Voyager spacecraft merging with Kirk's bastard son and the bald girl in a swirling light show? That was the one that did it, I think. I remember having a physical reaction to that ending, something akin to food poisoning. I used to think it was me but that day I knew it was them. They had become tired. Imagination was confused with novelty and like Henry Ford's assembly line cars, quality acquiesced to quantity.
Take, for example, the theme of Nemesis, Picard has been cloned and comes face to face with his darker side! The original Kirk was cloned or had his soul split into good and evil at least three times I can recall.
Wars that begin with galactic systems devolve into battles between space ships and again between foes where laser guns run out of juice and knives are knocked aside and we revert, a la Gary Cooper, to fists.
I swear at one point Picard turns to his chief engineer (whose wraparound goggles have been replaced by glassy blue contact lenses - one would think a technology capable of making the blind see could overcome the issue of iris discoloration!) and says, "give me all you've got." Who are these guys playing to? Little boys? Must be little boys. But the theater was full of me clones. Whose nemesis is this anyway?
To get an idea of the impact digital is having, go rent Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Meet Me In St. Louis. Not likely to be on the average Star Wars fan's top ten list but both films perfectly illustrate the effect of new technology. Both films were made in the first blush of the advent of Technicolor. Clothes were blood red or lime green or canary yellow, better to show off the new science of color. Like the Tiger Joe Tank I got for Christmas when I was eleven, it took over my life for a while. I watched two unaccompanied minors on a recent flight play their Game Boys from take off to landing. They would occasionally wipe their sweaty palms on the armrests and shake their pre-carpal thumbs in the air to restore blood flow but they could no more stop playing than George Cukor could choose an earth tone or George Lucas show us fifty clones. No, it's got to be two hundred thousand clones, and sixty thousand flying cars, and a gazillion mean dragonflies. I fear the current batch of films (from Pearl Harbor to Attack of the Clones) will gain giggles in twenty years as the overuse of the new toy will be more painfully obvious then than now.
Attack of the Clones has no Hans Solo or Chewbacca and they are sorely missed. Beside Harrison Ford's charisma, Chewbacca's charm, and Carrie Fisher's wit and presence, the current gaggle of co-stars doesn't compare well. Samuel L. Jackson reprises one of his two characters (the other being outraged victim and this one the resigned wizened one), Natalie Portman looks pretty, and the silly Jar Jar Binks returns (KILL THIS CHARACTER MR. LUCAS).
Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan) is as good as Hayden Christensen (Anakin-Darth) is bad. But the weight of trying to show us why Anakin goes over to the dark side is too much for any actor to bear, especially with lines like "why did my mother have to die?" I mean has anyone ever actually asked that question? Tender mentor leans in and whispers, "because she isn't immortal, stupid."
As I was complaining about the shallow nature of this latest chapter in the over-long Star Wars saga a little girl looked kind of disappointed and asked, "it's no good?" Feeling guilty I said she would probably really like it because she didn't have the original to compare. The truth is she'll probably be disappointed too. I encouraged her mother to take her to see Spider Man. A real story, I added.
I recently attended a screening of Sergie Eisenstein's Aleksandr Nevskiy at the local symphony. The orchestra was accompanied by a hundred voice choir and we were treated to the music of Sergei Prokofiev live in concert with the film. Aleksandr Nevskiy is a 1938 film by the great Russian director Eisenstein. His tale of Nevskiy is a thinly disguised allegory for the coming war with Germany. By placing the story in the 13th century, he avoids the obvious correlation between Fascist Germany and the Russia of Stalin. Nonetheless, the film was banned in Russia until Germany voided the non-aggression pact he signed with Russia. Cameras were in short supply in pre-war Russia and most of this film epic is filmed from a single stationary camera in black and white. That same year Hollywood would produce The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind at budgets that dwarfed Eisensteins. In spite of the near primitive conditions, Aleksandr Nevskiy ranks with if not above Hollywood's contemporary classics. Eisenstein's tale of honor and courage moves and inspires. Lucas' tale of loyalty and tyranny thrills and entertains. Big difference. Today I can see the title character of Nevskiy's film standing before his people exhorting them to defend their homeland. The lasting image from Lucas' is the great battle cruiser crash landing onto the planet. Whether this is a fair comparison or not is a legitimate question. If Lucas set out to tell an entertaining story of a galaxy far away he certainly succeeded. If his sub-plots of tyranny, democracy, and the corrupting influence of power are considered then Star Wars is something less than brilliant. Not that I don't share Lucas' apparent revulsion for the jingoistic diatribe that passes for political thought these days, but The Revenge of the Sith is too clunky a vehicle to make that point. The dialogue is as forced and tinny as the action sequences are breathtaking.
Eisenstein's Aleksandr Nevskiy stands up today through the power of the words that drive and deliver its message. Lucas' Star Wars will sadly slip from its current high water mark as its medium is visual. The audience is rendered passive in the face of the power of ILM's visual onslaught. The imaginative and adaptive power of the mind is more fully engaged in Nevskiy as it is in a novel with the result that Nevskiy can be viewed seventy years later and still stir. The Revenge of the Sith will certainly be appreciated in seventy years but it isn't likely to move.
Don't try taking this seriously and don't go expecting a remake of the 1975 Sci-Fi thriller with Katherine Ross and Paula Prentiss. It's the Stepford wives all right in all their print dress robotic glory, but there's nothing scary about this one. From the opening scene with Kidman as super successful network executive Joanna Eberhard to the final speech by the Stepford mastermind, this is one over the top movie. The opening credits are a pastiche of 50's homemaker ads and worth the price of admission. A gay couple makes an appearance, no mean feat considering the story line.
Matthew Broderick plays Mr. Joanna Eberhard and seems more robotic than the Stepford wives. I've always been a Matthew Broderick fan and can't imagine anyone capable of matching his performances in Ferris Bueller's Day Off and The Freshman. One can only assume he's worn out from The Producers and Sara Jessica Parker and that's why he barely surfaces in The Stepford Wives. This is a woman's film, though, and Kidman has some powerful company in Bette Midler and Glenn Close.
Light fare, kind of choppy and rushed at the end, but Nicole Kidman could probably carry Tora Tora Tora at the moment. Not as bad as I was led to believe and worth if for the opening credits and the knocks at Fox and trash TV in the opening scene.
Only about one in five American soldiers would fire their weapons directly at Axis soldiers during World War II. That percentage rose little during Korea and Vietnam. The military needed to come to grips with their charge's profound reluctance to take life. They did. Something close to ninety percent of our soldiers will now pull the trigger. It takes some pretty intense training to overcome this primal prohibition. We've got it and it's used to great effectiveness on the young people volunteering to fight for their country. Young people who once assumed their leaders cared about their fate. The same leaders who dropped them into a battlefield without lines of demarcation, fighting soldiers without uniforms, battling a population they were told would welcome them as liberators.
Stranger Than Fiction 11.09.06
What interested me about this film was the absurd premise. What put me off was Will Ferrell. I've never liked him for no good reason. In much the same way I disliked Adam Sandler until I saw him in Punch Drunk Love I am now a hopeful Will Ferrell fan. It happened quite suddenly when early on he screamed into the mirror over the voice (Emma Thompson as author Kay Eiffel) narrating his life. I saw a pain I hadn't seen before. So, like Sandler, I learn these guys have depth. Sadly shallow to assume they don't, of course, but I did.
Director Marc Foster masters the premise by never allowing anyone to break the plane between the audience and the actors - no winking allowed. The result, aided by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Emma Thompson's sterling performances, is a meaningful and heartfelt exploration of one man's struggle to come to life, in the face of an imminent and ultimately willfull death. It is passionate, compassionate and inspiring, what more can we ask of our entertainment, or our lives?
I think it was about the time I noticed Tom Clancy's red sunglasses that I lost interest in the Jack Ryan, boy-hero series. Clearly, this handsome, winning and reluctant hero was Clancy's alter ego. There was something obscene about being drawn into that particular fantasy world. The dust jacket photo reminded me of Coach Kalina. A disgusting creature from my middle school years, he taught math and bombardment. He might have been able to run around the track in his youth, but those days were long gone when he entered my life. He looked like one of those wheezing geezers I swore I would never be. He taught math leaning back in his chair with his fingers interlaced behind his head, elbows wide, yellowed armpits displayed as if he were proud. He no more understood math than I understood Portuguese. He didn't really teach bombardment, either. Young boys instinctively know how to play such games. Divide up and throw kick-balls at each other until only one is left standing. I used to pretend to be hit early. Being the last guy on one side was the last place anyone wanted to be. The balls would all be collected and thrown at once. Coach Kalina wore red sunglasses. A shame, too. I loved the science Clancy throws into his books. The Hunt for Red October was thrilling and the movie even better. Then there was the one about Columbian drug lords and Irish Republican Army radicals or maybe that was two different ones. It has been a while.
The Sum of All Fears was, as is too often the case these days, summed up and presented in the trailers. South African Nazi tries to get Russia and the US to blow each other up by tricking the Americans into believing a nuclear blast in Baltimore was a Russian attack. Jack Ryan knows better and tries to stop World War III. Alan Bates plays the aging Nazi mastermind, the ever-engaging Morgan Freeman is the CIA Director, James Cromwell the President, and Liev Schreiber is John Clark, the only real spy. The movie belongs to Affleck, though, and he is at his best as the reluctant analyst, "breathing air way over his pay grade." When he becomes the bloodied hero running from blast crater to Baltimore city dock to the Pentagon, putting all the clues together while the President and his advisors contemplate Armageddon aboard Air Force One, the film slips into pattern and predictability. The shouting matches between the President, National Security Advisor, and the Secretaries of Defense and State were a little hard to believe. One would hope the most powerful men in the world would consider their options in a more controlled manner but after hearing Nixon and Johnson on the Executive Office tapes I guess almost anything is possible. Coach Kalina as Presidential advisor. Ghastly!
Those familiar with the Ryan character may be taken aback by his circumstances in The Sum of All Fears. The family he once had is gone and he is a novice CIA analyst on his fourth date with a doctor. His wife in past films/future life is also a doctor so I guess this is a prequel of sorts. It is set in present time, though, so it can't be. It is disconcerting to use a character in multiple stories without regard for any sort of time line or continuity but then Clancy is no Faulkner and Baltimore is a long way from Yoknapatawpha County and the Snopes family.
The Sum of All Fears works all the way up to the detonation. Way too much of Baltimore is left standing and what with everyone of the major characters getting tossed about by the shock wave but apparently unaffected and unconcerned about radiation, the sense of danger and disaster switches to Air Force One and the Kremlin, a place too many predecessors have been, from Fail Safe to Thirteen Days. Both those films managed that confrontation far better than All Fears. When Ryan tries to get into the Pentagon with a borrowed ID card the film falls into the ridiculous. Half an hour ago, Baltimore (a forty five minute ride from the Pentagon) was blown up. The Pentagon still has one unarmed guy on duty when a bleeding and disheveled Ryan shows up. The card won't scan and the guard on duty wants to see it. Ryan refuses and the guard demands the card while ordering Ryan to step back. Finally, the scanner beeps and the guard relaxes as Ryan goes running past. Within ten minutes, Ryan is on the hot line to the Kremlin while a dozen or so Pentagon staffers huddle around watching. Seems a little implausible, no?
Maybe those red sunglasses are really rose colored. That would explain a lot. Ryan on the bridge of the sub reminiscing over fishing in the Bay, Ryan receiving the thanks of a grateful Queen, Ryan on the White House lawn picnicking with his girl. Oh Tom, really.
Ralph Fiennes is never better than when he finally snaps and, in a fit of rage, reels off all the people in his life he is trying to please. This overlong drama is distinguished by Fiennes performance as his grandfather, father, self, son, grandson and great grandson. The story of three generations of Hungarian Jews living in Hapsburg Austria/Hungary from the late 1800's through the Second World War, this film touches all the politically correct bases and then touches them again and again and again. The narrative breaks down in the 1930's when Fiennes portrays his third character in the Sonnenschein family. Perhaps it had something to do with the characters vapid nature. More likely, though, it was the almost irresistible urge that came upon me to scream at the screen, "can't any of you tell he is the SAME MAN?" I used to think Lois Lane was dumb!
The late nineteenth century sets are worth the price of admission. The homes and imperial offices of the late Hapsburg Empire are breathtakingly rendered. Molly Parker turns in another performance laced with strength and subtlety.
Sunshine (2008) 07.27.07
What happens halfway through? So many movies swerve off track at the mid-point that there must be some intrinsic phenomenon of which we are yet unaware responsible. Stripes, with Bill Murray, is the classic example. Once the squad is chosen for Urban Assault Vehicle duty that decades best comedy sinks into silliness and banality. Silly is what I thought when the stow-away makes his appearance at the mid-point of what had been up to then, an intelligent, understated, offbeat science fiction thriller. Once the Jason gene was activated, Sunshine went dark. Too bad, maybe the sequel can start with... oh, yeah, nevermind.
Sunshine Cleaning 04.03.09
Amy Adams is perfect for the role of the once popular cheerleader reduced to positive affirmations taped to the mirror. She was very nearly that woman. A few years ago she was on the verge of giving up on acting. And then came Junebug and the encouragement of her co-star Embeth Davidtz. Thank goodness she stuck it out. I shudder to think how many more brilliant talents don't. Sunshine Cleaning is not the comedy the trailers would have us believe. It is a dark story of a mother's suicide and the horrible toll is takes on her daughters (Amy Adams and Emily Blunt). Alan Arkin plays the surviving husband. Amy Adams transcends the material with her brilliantly empathetic portrait of this tragic woman, struggling to free herself of the undeserved baggage with which she, like too many of us, is encumbered.
A friend pointed out the recurring use of blood as symbol. Sunshine Cleaning is a crime scene clean-up service. Blood appears regularly in their work and when it isn't dried into fabric, mattress, or cushion it appears as a thick, almost gelatinous substance. Dried into materials, though, the only recourse is to discard object along with stain. Still fresh, or on a more resistant surface, the blood can be removed. Are we seeing nothing more than blood as thicker than water here or are we seeing something more subtle? Had someone intervened when the girls were still young, might the scar of their mother's suicide been less penetrating? I can only assume it is my age that makes these secondary thematic elements more discomforting than illustrative. Or perhaps it is the clumsy nature of its use? Left to choose between discerning the intent of the imagery and the shining beacon that is Amy Adams on screen, I choose the bright shiny surface - another facet of my advancing age?
Superman Returns 06.28.06
I asked a co-worker if he'd seen the new Superman film. "He's gay," my friend says. Now this is the sort of guy who gets his worldview from the likes of Rush Limbaugh. He'll probably not go, just in case. His loss. Against tremendous odds, director Bryan Singer (X-Men and X-2) resuscitates the once dead franchise. Acting, script, special effects, story, Superman Returns has it all. It may not make you want to start a recycling program at work but it will make you forget you need to. A sequel is already in the works and if Mr Singer can pull off anything like what he managed with the X-Men sequel we can hardly wait.
Super Size Me 05.30.04
The cacophony of wrongs, injustices and horrors with which we are daily assaulted is sufficient to drown out what might appear to be the lesser evils. I neglected seeing Super Size Me for a few weeks as I know what's wrong with fast food and thought I didn't need to see Morgan Spurlock's film to underscore the evils of a high fat diet. First of all, Morgan is far more charming and funny than comes across in the trailers. More importantly, though, as is usually the case with fellow documentarian Michael Moore, we learn a little more than we thought we knew. In the closing credits of Spurlock's documentary of the effect of a 30 day diet of nothing but McDonald's fare we learn that Congress recently passed the "Cheeseburger bill" making it illegal to sue fast food restaurants for making you fat. I don't know if that means we can't sue them for hardening our arteries or giving us diabetes, but that's beside the point. The really awful thing about this industry is the manner in which they lure children into their world of fries and shakes. Especially in the inner city, a McDonald's is often one of the few places children can go to play. Spurlock interviews some first graders with picture flash cards. Every one of them knew Ronald McDonald, only two of the five recognized George Washington and none of them recognized a painting of Jesus. Happy Meals and toy giveaways dominate the landscape for children. We hear from several advocates, including the former Surgeon General, about the dangers of fast food and the power of the food industry and their lobby. One observation that I found telling was that children are presented with something close to ten thousand advertisements or images promoting fast food or soda pop in the course of one year. If mom and dad home cooked dinner every night and gave a little talk about wholesome diets (count these as two) the child would get a little over seven hundred "counters" to the fast food message machine. Seven hundred against ten thousand, hmmm. Most of our schools are outsourcing meals and we get to see a few school cafeterias serving up fries and sodas to their kids. The Surgeon General predicts obesity will overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable death within the next several years. Health and Human Services head Tommy Thompson tells us that the direct costs of diabetes have more than doubled from 44 billion to 90 billion.
Suspect Zero 08.28.04
Lots of choices this weekend as I'm a bit behind on movie going. Suspect Zero won this afternoons contest because of Carrie-Anne Moss. When she cut loose on Guy Pearce in Memento the passion and anger came off the screen the way Alanis Morissette's anger erupts in You Oughta Know. That kind of passion is like a magnet, repelling and attracting at the same time. Ms. Moss plays a subdued and secondary role in this story of the FBI's Icarus Project, the remote viewing of criminal scenes. I saw an interview with Aaron Eckhart this week wherein he lauds Ben Kingsley's mastery of his craft. Apparently, Sir Ben insists on being addressed as Sir on the set. Sad to hear but of little matter. He is a master and his mastery has become almost routine, we take it for granted. In Suspect Zero he plays yet another complex, conflicted and terrifying figure. Suspect Zero is a theory that a serial killer with no discernible (read catchable) pattern is afoot and killing hundreds, if not thousands. We are led to believe most of the pictures we see on those incessant flyers we get in the mail are all victims of one prolific killer. The arc of this story exceeds the range of even the best actors, though, and we are left watching individual performances because the plot has moved beyond our ability to believe. The performances are grand and of some consolation but this is a film with little to say about which we care. Sure, serial killers are terrible and aren't we glad we get rid of some during the course of this film, but the remote viewing and its impact on Kingsley's and Eckhart's characters aren't of much matter, in a league with Ben's honorific, interesting but not worth more than a second or two of time or thought. Maybe I'll go see the nth remake of The Exorcist this afternoon.
Let's start with SWAT's good things. Michelle Rodriguez gets a few minutes where she isn't pointing a gun at somebody to remind us she has talent beyond her toughness. Josh Charles reappears after the demise of Sports Night, one of the better (and hence short-lived) TV shows in recent years. Olivier Martinez does well as a cold blooded killer with an eye for creative uses of the media. LL Cool J does a cool victory dance in a bar. Samuel L. Jackson doesn't play golf. Oh yes, wrong, sorry, he does.
The first hour or so isn't horrible. It's really fairly entertaining. The SWAT training stuff looked like stuff I could do and that was encouraging. I mean how hard is it to trot up a nicely mown field firing at big metal signs, and running up to a bad-guy target picture and blasting away with how ever many bullets you have left? I'd say the bad guys better develop some evasive skills or they're liable to get blasted. Even ducking would be better than just hanging from a clothesline, flapping in the wind, waiting for the SWAT guys to do the somersault jump up firing thing. Oh durn, I can't do a somersault so I guess I'm stuck on patrol duty. Somersault, now there's an interesting word. But I digress.
Here's the real problem with SWAT, and most everything else out there these days - it has Colin Farrell. Kidding. Why does he get picked on so? Seems like a sincere young man pursuing a career in acting. Not bad at it for the little I've seen. The problem with SWAT is it is so tired. It's been done, literally and figuratively. The other day I heard an NPR reporter describing some food product as "literally flying off the shelves." They should know better. The product would be figuratively flying off the shelves. SWAT doesn't fly in any sense. Old TV series, cops and robbers, good cops, bad cops, bad captain, angry calls from "the Chief", citizens cluttering up the landscape, bad guys much cooler than good guys, etc. etc. ad nauseum. OK, enough of this. I'm going to go watch the rain. Later.
Sweet Home Alabama 10.02.02
Country bumpkins versus New York City slickers. The girl with the hillbilly past (the always delightful Reese Witherspoon) is NYC's latest fashion diva. Her beer drinkin' catfish eatin' husband needs to sign the D-vorce papers so she can wed the sensitive son of the mayor (the always delightful Candice Bergen).
Everybody and everything is stereotyped. The stereotyping is so thorough that nothing proximates real. From the closeted good ole boy to the flaming fashion queen, from the southern pick up to the northern SAAB, from the double-wide to the mayor's mansion, no object, sound, food, or person escapes the dulling swipe of genericism. I was embarrassed for yankees, southerners, men, women, gays, heteros, singles, marrieds, dogs, cats, and catfish. The purveyors of this trash appear to have confused humor with ridicule. They further appear to suffer from the illusion that abuse, if spat equally upon opposing interests, cannot be offensive. Wrong. Go away you small minded cheap shooters.
Buses fly, death is dealt, super-criminals reign supreme, ho-hum.
The most interesting part of this drama takes place in the first five minutes. John Travolta (as Gabriel Shear, "the world's most dangerous spy" - that's two Archangels down and two to go for John), does a monologue replete with cruel condemnations of Hollywood film. Hollywood's most significant failure, according to Gabriel, is in its failure to achieve realism. Before the next ninety minutes are up we learn first hand just what Gabriel means. Don Cheadle (a talented actor) and Hugh Jackman (Wolverine from the X-Men, one of the all-time biggest career mistakes, I mean, typecast as a wolverine?), tumble three hundred yards or so down an 80 degree cliff with not so much as a sprain, two men are shot dead inside an FBI interrogation room by bad guys who escape through the front door, a man so desperate to be reunited with his daughter that he'll risk his life for a shot at being with her, takes a job on the other side of the country from her!, and, finally, all this takes place because, in the fifties, J. Edgar created a super-secret organization designed to protect our freedoms against any foe by meting out retribution on a ten-to-one ratio.
Halle Berry does alright and John Travolta is always fun. Sam Shephard makes a cameo as a corrupt Senator. Sam needs to get back to writing, anyone can play a corrupt Senator, the role is an archetype.
Gifted writer of screenplays for Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal SUnshine of the Spotless Mind sits in the directors chair for Synecdoche, New York. Charlie Kaufman irregular mind produces yet another strange story of a small scale theater director suddenly endowed with a genius grant. Freed of the mundane limitations imposed by budget and timelines Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sets out to make something truly meaningful. He rents a warehouse and brings his theater company along for what turns into a fifty year odyssey. Eventually hiring actors to portray himself and his assistant in his quest for something meaningful, he steps back from the production. The actor playing Cotard eventually hires another actor to play himself and we begin to lose the thread of the narrative - at least I did. I began to suspect that Kaufman was letting us in on what happened to him when he was given the director's reigns. As director of one of his bizarre stories he was freed of the mundane limitations imposed by script and story and set out to make something more. If he did, it slipped past me while was busy figuring out whether Dianne Weist was playing her daughter, the cleaning lady, or Cotard. No matter, I got to watch Samantha Morton and that was enough for me.
We all think we know what sort of ugly world we live in. Confined to our little jobs and our safe homes and our secure families we can turn on the evening news and drop in for a visit on the real world. But even that view is filtered. The world of assassination, torture, oil politics and espionage is one we can only imagine. I suppose this is why Syriana hasn't been the box office splash that Traffic was. Traffic was about drugs and we all know someone who has been sidetracked by drugs. Syriana is about a world highjacked by oil and money and greed and power. There are occassional vignettes of families together, loved ones wanting their loved ones home safe, children playing, but the images that will remain from Syriana are of espionage, torture, greed, and murder - all in the name of oil. Or economics, or growth, or whatever helps you understand. I don't. I don't want to understand a world like this. Missionary zeal that murders young people, greed that twists and perverts, power that corrupts and destroys. See this film if you want a glimpse beneath the oil slick. It will sicken.
Bebe Neuwirth plays Diane, a fortyish chiropractor who has a one night stand with her best friend Eve's (Sigourney Weaver) stepson, Oscar (Aaron Stanford). Oscar has a crush on Eve. Oscar seeks advise from his best friend Charlie (Robert Iler), another sixteen year old fellow student at a posh New York private school. Oscar quotes from Voltaire and carries Candide in his hip pocket. He's passionate, sweet, smart and attentive, who wouldn't want to sleep with him? A classmate, Miranda (Kate Mara) wants to but Oscar's has eyes only for Eve... and Diane.
This is a clever comedy with a sterling cast. That the theme is people having sex with someone less than half their age doesn't matter because the October side of the relationship is a woman. Right? Were the sexes reversed, this would be a whole different story. But they're not so it's OK. Right?
The Tailor of Panama 04.24.01
Who's running the studios these days? How do movies like this get made? How do books like this get written? Who publishes them? Who reads them? I walked out of the theater seeing the ridiculous Tom Clancy in his ridiculous dark glasses on the cover of yet another novel about the good guy that saves the world from the bad guy(s). The Tailor of Panama is different only in that there are no good guys. In order to make the inadequate character constructs (Pierce Brosnan as Burnt out British spy Andy Osnard and the phenomenal Geoffrey Rush as Harry Pendel, The Tailor of Panama) look believable, the author/filmmaker (LeCarre/Boorman) places them in relief against snarling, surly samples of Panamanian evil. Andy Osnard, in case we sleep to this point in the film, is, as - Francesca (Catherine McCormack), one of three British attaches in Panama says, the most evil person we've ever met. When Harry is asked by his wife Louisa (Jamie Lee Curtis) why he mucked up his life, his best friend's life, the British Secret Service and the nation of Panama, his response is, "I don't know, I guess because I learned to lie in prison to make things seem better than what they are." Oh man, if this is LeCarre's version of motivation I think I'll drown myself in Louis Lamour western novels.
The 'plot' - Osnard convinces the British and American governments that the Panamanian President is selling the Panama Canal to a consortium headed by the combined governments of nationalist and mainland China. He does it with purloined documents detailing the pension plans of Canal workers. Wow.
The 'action' - flashbacks to the evil Panamanian monsters beating up Marta (Leonor Varela) and lots of scenes of Osnard and Francesca having sex. The kind of sex real men are supposed to have with women who pretend disdain for the raffish rake Osnard represents yet have no choice but to surrender to the animal passions stirred in them by real men. Wow and wow again.
My father subscribed to Argosy and True magazines back in the fifties and sixties. Soldier of fortune magazines with scantily clad damsels in distress being rescued by handsome, muscular heroes. The same magazines that Tom Clancy and John LeCarre must have read as children. As grown-ups, they write stories of macho men and sexy spys. Nothing wrong with any of this, I suppose. When the story and the characters are entirely unbelievable, though, the little pretend world becomes harder to imagine. At least it should. The scary thing is maybe, for many, it doesn't. Believable, unbelievable, no matter. Show me some skin. I'll buy anything.
Taking Lives 03.20.04
Psycho serial killer is pursued by serial killer profiler in this groundbreaking drama that redefines if not recreates the crime genre. Kidding. Ethan Hawke is phenomenal and Angelina Jolie reminds us she can so act her way out of a cosmetic surgery clinic as she plays the worldÕs sexiest FBI profiler brought in by the Quebec Police to help them solve a murder. Along with Oliver Martinez, who plays half of the local homicide team on the case, I never did understand why the Captain, played by the underutilized Turkish actor Tcheky Karyo (from the brilliantly original Nikita film upon which the more pedestrian USA series was based), brought her in. We do learn later that they spent some time together at Quantico (FBI Profiler home base) and I guess who wouldnÕt call in the worldÕs sexiest profiler if the budget could stand it? But I digress.
TV director D.J. Caruso presents his second feature film (The Salton Sea preceded) and he never lets us forget this movie is being directed. Super close-ups, muted scenes, bizarre angles abound as Mr. Caruso attempts to create a mood or something. We do end up disoriented, which worked in Insomnia as we shared DormerÕs disorientation. In Taking Lives it only serves to prevent suspension of disbelief. The last few minutes of Taking Lives falls off the ledge as the construct for catching the evil killer stretches even the most generous imagination. I shanÕt spoil it for you as it is worth seeing for Hawke and Martinez's performance. Oliver Martinez, the only bright spot in last summers misfire S.W.A.T., will hopefully earn ever richer offerings. He is talented and charismatic. Shame the available materials isn't equal to his or Hawke's gifts.
The Taking of Pelham 123 06.09.09
An updated version of a good but insignificant suspense thriller. I would have preferred to see Walter Mathau with a diamond stud in his ear lobe, tearing up over personal remorse for taking a bribe that didn't compromise his decision to choose the bribor's project. A train wreck from start to finish. Who would have thought a police sniper would accidentally discharge his sniper rifle when startled by a rat, or that a police negotiator would push aside the guy that established rapport with the crazed gunman so he could take charge? Who trained these guys, Mr. Greenjeans? The Captain himself? When Denzel went running down 5th Avenue chasing the taxi in which Travolta was making his escape I made mine.
In one of the opening scenes, Merideth Logue (Cate Blanchett) approaches Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) as they claim their luggage upon arrival in Europe. She is clearly interested in meeting him and insinuates herself into line in order to accomplish just that. These two have just completed a voyage across the Atlantic traveling in First Class aboard the Queen Elizabeth. We are to believe she just now saw him. How they avoided each other on the three-week voyage over is a mystery and remains one throughout the film.
Two hours into the film we learn the critically important and utterly contradictory tidbit that Dickie Greenleaf (the fellow Tom has been dispatched to Europe to collect) nearly beat a fellow student to death at Princeton. In the same scene we learn that Ripley was at Princeton, but as a laborer.
Early on Ripley demonstrates an uncanny ability to mimic others voices. Yet he spends nearly the entire film impersonating another and never has occasion to call on his talent as a vocal mimic.
These multiple pieces of a puzzle float about throughout the film but never make it into the story in a meaningful way. Disconnected clues to some other story we don't get to see. Chekhov wrote, "a gun introduced in act one must go off by act three." This film leaves handguns, rifles, and assault weapons all about the set. Where the Hell is the continuity guy?
Pedro Almodovar probably couldn't make a simple film if he wanted to. Crafting a story of obsessive love and loss using two comatose women and two emotionally crippled men, Almodovar takes us to places we would ordinarily never go. The woman and men each and together are polar opposites, a female bulfighter, a male nurse, an overly sensitive reporter, a paralyzed dancer. Using these extremes, Almodovar shows us ourselves. We see parts of us in each of these characters. Repugnant, attractive, joyous, miserable fall together and separate to be seen as facets of the same stone as we are all part of the same person, human.
You haven't seen this? Hello? What more do you need to know than Maggie Smith, Lily Tomlin, Cher, Judi Dench and Joan Plowright?
This is a powerful story acted by several of the greatest actresses of our time.
The driver was going on and on about the dispatcher, "no one can understand him he talks too fast, he runs all the drivers away." He punctuates each sentence and some clauses with a laugh. Not the sort of obligatory laugh people will sometimes use instead of "knowwhatimean" or the less obvious lilting end of the sentence to compel your involvement and response, but a real laugh. This was one happy guy. When he got to the accent part I asked him about his. "African," he said, "Nigeria." "Ibo?" I asked? Another laugh and the question, "You know my people?" One of the disadvantages of the American melting pot is the circumscription of the phrase, "my people." My people means only blood kin here, in Africa it takes on broader and richer meaning. "Only a few," I answer, most if not all were taxi drivers. Most people my age remember Biafra and their 1967 war for independence.
Colonial Nigeria was ruled by the Ibo tribe. The British selected the Ibo's to serve as administrators in much the same was the Belgians ratified the Tutsi leadership of the Hutu's in Rwanda. The results in both nations not dissimilar. Six hundred thousand died ten years ago in Rwanda, over a million in Biafra. Whether you call it genocide (Rwanda) or war for independence (Biafra), it was slaughter the old-fashioned way, up close and very personal.
"I was two days from execution when the war ended," my happy driver explained. He was a regional commander and was captured at a checkpoint and wrapped in chains on the spot. "Not even handcuffs," he says, smiling, "big chains. Ha-ha-ha-ha. I came to America as soon as I could."
As we did in Rwanda, we stood on the sidelines during the Biafran war. American foreign policy doesn't change much over the decades - No oil, no American students, no thank you. Tears of the Sun, Antoine Fuqua's (Training Day) latest real movie (he cut his teeth on "artist formerly known as" videos) foray puts America and Americans smack dab in the middle of the Biafran conflict. Bruce Willis and his fellow Navy Seals decide to expand their mission from saving the naturalized American doctor (a beautiful young widow, thank you very much) and elect to help another sixty or so refugees make it to the border and safety. That they tricked the sixty into following them through the jungle in order to get the doc to the rendezvous point is quickly forgiven as marauding rebels are hot on their trail. You can guess the rest.
Here we have an American commander electing to "do the right thing" regardless of the consequences, political or physical. The parallel to George W. and his righteous war on Iraq is too obvious not to be intentional. Coupled with Fuqua's history - Training Day, about a rogue LA narc cop was released at the same time the LA police department was being rocked by a rogue cop scandal - one can't help but wonder if we aren't in the presence of a Madonna-like marketing wizard. Art imitates life, right?
Suspense thrillers. An under-appreciated genre. Hitchcock did them so much better than anyone else he relegated the rest to a second-class of relative obscurity from which only a few rise to the level of art. Or maybe it's the mechanical nature of their plot development that makes the suspense thriller so prone to disrespect. Characters are secondary in the suspense thriller, it's the who-done-it or when-will-it-be-done or to-whom-will-it-be-done that dominates. They don't have to be second class, though, and in the rare film where actors of brilliance meet the director of ability executing a story of sophistication, the whole transcends the genre. French film starring Francois Cluzet (absolutely first rate actor) and Marie-Josee Croze (we saw her in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly last year which she made before Tell No One, but because the US film industry is completely disconnected from the rest of the world and the Houston market even more discombobulated, we saw them here in reverse order of their French releases here) are the actors of brilliance and the director, Guillame Canet brings his own screenplay to life and Tell No One sweeps you away in a frantic haze of fear and uncertainty all the while making you care about what happens to the characters. Delightful experience.
NPR did a story this weekend on marketing's next evolution - product integration. Beyond product placement, product integration actually involves the product in the story. Instead of merely showing a Krispy Kreme box on the cop's desk, product integration would have the cop discussing the importance of a good donut to proper criminal investigative procedures. The Terminal is the quintessential product integration movie. Sadly and surprisingly, it's not much else. As The Terminal's hero, Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) is deposited in the International Transit Lounge, the evil airport security czar Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci) tells him what he can do while he waits, the only thing there is to do "shop." And shop he does. From Swatch to Starbuck's, from Boss to Brookstone, this is product integration run amuck, one long commercial. We learn the price of a new suit and how much you can get at Burger King for three quarters. And none of it is believable, not the burger price, but the whole construct.
A coup in Viktor's native Krakosia has rendered him a man without a country so he cannot enter the US and can't go home until air service is restored. So he is stranded in the International Transit Lounge for nine months! His situation is a mystery to him as he doesn't speak the language and the authorities don't seem to grasp the concept of language barrier. The scenes where Dixon "explains" the situation to Viktor are awkward and stupid. Viktor learns English from tourism booklets and appears to survive for weeks at a time on crackers and ketchup without losing a pound (it would appear Mr. hanks has yet to shed the weight he put on for The Ladykillers). He gets a job as a construction worker, strikes up a relationship with a United Airlines flight attendant played by Catherine Zeta-Jones. Stanley Tucci asks her how such an unlikely pairing could occur and she replies, "a guy like you could never understand." Well, I'm not an evil airport security czar and I don't get it either. Maybe Sir Spielberg needs someone on his staff that can recognize a naked emperor when they see one.
But the real problem with The Terminal isn't the far-fetched story line, it's the characters. The only hope for empathy comes and goes very early on as Viktor sees his beloved Krakosia being blown up on CNN. Viktor displays some passion and then it's gone, replaced by a patience not seen since Ghandi. We listen to this one note performance for the next one hundred minutes (yet another too long movie) as Viktor makes the best of his stay while Dixon tries to get rid of him. He patches up lovers, rescues fellow travelers, even becomes a Transit Lounge hero. I'm hard pressed to imagine anyone who could like or even care about this character. Way too late we find out what Viktor is doing in the US and we want to care about him again but it's so late we just want this film to be over. The end does finally come and everyone returns to their lives as if nothing every happened, because nothing did happen!
I've loved her from the first moment I saw her. She is powerful, she is futuristic, she is sensitive without weakness, intelligent without arrogance. No, not the Terminatrix - Claire Danes. Even if this were Terminator redux I'd go, just to see her.
The Terminator series began when Claire was just starting pre-school. Thank goodness she was too young for James Cameron to cast or marry. Not that I have anything against a guy who declares himself King of the World, but really.
Anyway, this Terminator thing is great. Arnold may be getting too old to come back in another eight years, plus he may be governor of California by then anyway. This one has a new model Terminatrix (model Kristanna Loken) with cool new weaponry and a cool new look - leather pantsuit. Her hair starts out all wavy and stuff but she changes it when she steals a cool car and pulls it (her hair) back in a neat bun. Kill-ready, she is seeking Connor's lieutenants for termination. Connor (Nick Stahl) has "dropped off the grid" and can't be found so the machines of the future send back a babe to kill his staff. How these machines took over everything is a bit of a mystery as they seem singularly inept at getting rid of one guy. Anyway, Terminator 3 has a sense of humor, an all-time car chase/smash-up, wonderful acting (Danes and Stahl are brilliant, Arnold is Arnold), and expands and enriches the Terminator story line, what more could you want?
Terminator Salvation 05.16.09
People good. Machines bad. Come with me if you want to live. I'll be back.
The Hurt Locker begins with a quote about war as drug. The soldiers we follow are a particular kind of warrior. They defuse bombs, the weapon of choice in our current two wars. Current two wars. How accustomed we've become to that phrase. Last month no Americans died in Iraq and more died in Afghanistan that any month since our invasion of that country nearly a decade ago. A measure of how far we have to go as a people is that I have no idea how many non-American lives were lost last month. The best estimate I can find is several thousand civilian deaths occurred in December in Iraq and Afghanistan in December. many more in Pakistan but it seems no one is keeping count.
The big news last month was concern over how much we'd spend at Christmas this year. Our economy has become dependent on how much stuff we acquire. Not how much we create or manufacture or assemble or design. How many Ipods, pairs of jeans, cars, toys, and HD TV's we buy, that's our new measure of economic success.
The Hurt Locker is focused and excruciating. We are introduced to a crew of three and almost immediately lose one (Guy Pearce). He is replaced by Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) an apparently reckless but competent team leader. We later learn he has disarmed nearly a thousand IED's. In case we're unclear about his motives, we see him lighting a cigarette after each job. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal don't comment on the war, they show us the people in it. Up close and painful.
Our myths are our attempt to understand the world around us and our place in it. The Iliad and The Odyssey, among Western civilization's oldest epics (Gilgamesh predates and may have influenced The Odyssey as some passages bear an almost Ambrosian similarity), were committed to paper almost three thousand years ago and had existed for some centuries prior as oral recitations. Homer, an itinerant blind Greek poet, is credited as their author but he likely dictated what had been handed down to him by his forbearers. The Gods play a dominating role in everyone's life and immortality (whether actual or achieved through never ending fame) is a featured thematic element. Humanity has forever been preoccupied with the limitations imposed by death. One of the more recent versions of our wish to transcend death is found in the Scientologist's belief that many/all of us carry with us a hundred thousand year old life force of alien beings (Thetans) long ago trapped in our mortal frames. I'm a little fuzzy on the details (hard not to be) but it seems through multiple sessions on a lie detector, one can "clear" oneself of the negating forces surrounding our ancient life force and, I guess, attain immortality. One of the more common versions of our quest for immortality involves a mediator/hero who "conquers" death on our behalf and who will, if allegiance is sworn, usher us into an eternal life of light, lyre, and harp. Another guarantees an eternity with two score perpetually refreshing virgins accessed (by males only it seems) by dying while killing others. The other side of the world subsists on a more subtle reincarnation process repeated ad infinitum.
For those of us still enamored of the dictates of science, these ancient myths are less and less relevant to our daily lives. Science, though, does little to help us understand how we should approach our sentient existence. In the absence of a set of instructions (golden plates [Mormon], stone tablets [Judeo/Christian], book length dictation [Islam], sitting under a tree epiphany [Bhuddism]) we find ourselves alone with our conscience, struggling to know how we should act and why. If these ancient myths no longer guide our moral compass, where are we to look for help?
Like every field of endeavor with which I am familiar, whether music, politics, athletics, painting, architecture, fiction or film, only the tiniest percentage of output rises to the level of greatness and transcendence. In transcending the limitations of their particular mode of expression they can illuminate a path for us. Never the path as zealots would have it, but a path. And not to some imaginary Nirvana but merely a path from relative darkness to relative light. Beethoven and The Beatles, Socrates and Lincoln, Owens and Jordan, DaVinci and Goya, Wright and Pei, James and Updike, Truffaut and Kazan can teach us about ourselves, illuminate an ideal, even bridge the chasm between what we experience and what we hope.
Into this chasm leaps Helen Hunt in her directorial debut, Then She Found Me, and furiously works to build a bridge between what is her life and that for which she desperately hopes. From an Alice Arlen screenplay (she also penned the electric Silkwood and the underseen but brilliant The Weight of Water) Then She Found Me pushes star-crossed grade school teacher April Epner (Hunt) from one catastrophe to another. A glimmer of light appears from time to time and is quickly extinguished. Sometimes quite dark, often painful and occasionally hilarious, Then She Found Me addresses loss, love, and dysfunction directly and intelligently. As all genuine forms of expression should, it informs and enlightens without pretense to an objective truth. Nothing gets blown up, there are no car chases, and the bad guys are within us, living alongside the longing to know, the struggle to overcome our baser selves even as the awareness dawns that no help comes forth from those hills to which we lift our eyes.
Paul Thomas Anderson - I hated Magnolia , loved Punch-Drunk Love, loved the first half of There Will Be Blood and hated the second half. Daniel Day Lewis is, of course, a phenomenon. He too, though, seemed to lose something in the post explosion half of the film. Paul Dano arrived on the set on a Thursday with a role of a couple dozen lines and was immediately asked by Anderson to play Eli Sunday, the only other major character in the film. Shooting started Monday. Imagine you have three days to prepare for a role opposite arguably the most prepared method actor of his generation. I'd have run for the hills. He didn't and he was brilliant. But the film comes unhinged when Plainfield's (Daniel Day-Lewis) son is deafened in an oilfield accident. He hands the boy off to an assistant (Ciaran Hinds, who has been in everything since HBO's Rome) and stays to watch the well burn all night and into the next day. When the fire is extinguished by an early version of Red Adair he retires to his hut to hold and comfort the boy. I was reminded of Sissy Spacek in Crimes of the Heart offering a glass of tea to the husband she just shot. In Crimes it was funny, in an Anderson film it tries to pass for depth of character, I suppose, but is comes off as disingenuous. I spent the next half hour trying to get a grip on the character and eventually failed. And so the film fails. In spite of shattering performances by Dano and Day-Lewis.
Addiction and loss. What better way to spend an evening? Halle Berry, in a welcome respite from her Gothika/Catwoman career threatening work, returns to the drama that last brought her an award for best actress. Benicio Del Toro couldn't make a bad movie if he wanted to. She plays Audrey Burke, bereft widow to Del Toro's slipping/recovering heroin addict. He was her dead husband's friend since childhood and surfaces when she remembers to invite him to the funeral. The rest is a ballet of exquisite pain, sadness, and hope as they navigate their way through their shared and individual grief. We meet Del Toro high and listening to the Velvet Underground's Sister Jane. He slips the headphones off when he hears the knock at the door. Sadly, the Velvet Underground slip to the background.
I'm reading Oliver Sack's latest, Musicophilia, and keep hoping he'll talk about music and the brain. Instead he recants an endless stream of cases of people with musical hallucinations. At least through Chapter Five. I can almost see him at his desk with a big stack of medical files, lifting the salient points from each, coupling them with some sweet anecdote and hammering away at his keyboard, stoked on coffee. But I digress. As always. Maybe I'll write him a letter and ask about physiological underpinnings of digression in thought. I can see it now, patient JohnS was unable to keep a stream of thought going for more than three minutes. His efforts would be sidelined the same way the bubbling brook where he played as a child of Bosnian gypsies is sidelined from the deep Neretua as it tumbles toward the Adriatic...
One of the fuzzy things about existentialism is tied up in its basic premise. We are alone in the universe, or we might as well be. See what I mean? Existentialism teaches us that life is inherently without meaning. Not because we KNOW it is without meaning because that, in itself, would indicate some basis for knowledge. And with a basis for knowledge we could expect to discern meaning. Life is without meaning because we are incapable of discerning it. If meaning is found beyond the temporal, as temporal beings, we are, by definition, incapable of apprehending that meaning. Hence the leap of faith required for immersion in the world of the religious. Leap or not it's up to you. Existentialists could care less. Well, no, to not care at all you'd have to be a nihilist. Existentialists, at least of the Sartre school, are free to imbue life with meaning, as long as they do it with a wink and a nod to the abyss of meaninglessness that yawns ever before them. If the meaning of life is forever beyond our reach then why not attach meaning where we will? A philosophically risky proposition but one Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard were willing to take on. Camus took the darker road, one that led him to believe the only ultimately meaningful act of which we are capable is suicide. Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" stood on its head. I die, therefore I must have lived.
My problem with all of this is its implied license to wander all over the philosophical landscape without regard for any intellectual honesty. If life is utterly without meaning then anything I say or do is as legitimate as anything anyone might say or do. No independent verification, no objective reality against which to measure behaviors and all is permissible. Well, this we can't have. The result will be films like Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. Jill and Karen Sprecher wrote this film and Jill directed. An ensemble cast takes us through several chapters in the lives of apparently disconnected New Yorkers. As it turns out, their lives intersect with surprising effect. Most of the intersections leave one of both parties bloodied or bowed. A professor lectures his class on chaos theory, a therapy session ends with utterly no resolution or even progress, a series of random occurrences throw lives off track, careening, more often than not, into other lives wreaking havoc at every turn. But then, rainbows. The chance encounter has a positive impact. Relatively positive, of course, because the characters were so deep in the hole created by other seemingly random acts that any elevation will likely save them from drowning. The director suggests even the movie itself was a product of good fortune and fate. Whoa Nellie! Is the selection of contestants for The Price Is Right guided by eternal providence?
Philosophical poppycock aside, Thirteen Conversations is distinguished by a powerful ensemble cast. Alan Arkin, Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro, Clea DuVall, Amy Irving, and Tia Texada are each remarkable in their turn. Just don't try making any sense of it.
I was ten years old and the basket was too heavy. There must have been a hundred cans in it. "Dad help," I whined, as my feet spun on the polished linoleum floor of the local supermarket. He reached for the cart without a word or a look at me. I expected an exasperated sigh, even at ten I knew we kids were not what he had planned for his life. Instead, he was silent. Not the silence usually directed at me, this was a silence that came from somewhere else. His dark eyes, magnified by heavy convex lenses, were darting about as if they expected to see something spring from behind a row of corn flakes. This was a dad I hadn't seen before. I'd seen mad, happy, drunk and sad. I'd never seen scared.
It was October 1962, back when radios were manufactured with little red triangles on the dial. The triangles were where you tuned your radio if the sirens went off any time other than Friday at noon. Friday at noon was when they tested the sirens. They sat atop a phone company switching station downtown. A twenty-story tan brick building with no windows, it contained all the electronic switches for the phone company's central routers. I was on the inside once. Each floor the size of the city block the building occupied. No walls inside, just row after endless row of phone company switches. Each switch represented a phone call. Start a call, click. Finish a call, click. Standing in the middle of these switches and listening to the cacophony made me think of being inside the brain and listening to the electric current snap across the synapses.
On the roof were eight horns, each the size of an Oldsmobile. Sitting in a fifth grade classroom with the windows open, I could hear them. Long wailing screams all the way from downtown. I worried that week, and months afterward, what if I don't hear them in time? I could go blind if I'm looking in the wrong direction when the bombs go off.
The Cuban missile crisis ended on Sunday, October 28, 1962 when we secretly agreed to remove our own missiles from Turkey. Kevin Costner as long time Kennedy bud, Ken O'Donnell, tells his wife in the Roger Donaldson film Thirteen Days, "If the sun comes up tomorrow it will only be because men of good will prevail." This is an exceptional film about one of the most extraordinary events of our time. Fortunately, the makers of this film were sufficiently appreciative of the drama inherent in the Cuban Missile Crisis to tell a "bare bones" story. The camaraderie between Bobby, John Kennedy, and Ken O'Donnell, though, is the centerpiece of the story. When the three of them escape from the situation room to the Oval Office and bolster each other to withstand the Joint Chiefs, the CIA Director, and the other "hawks" arguing for air strikes against the missiles, the movie takes on a freshness normally not achieved in historical reenactments.
O'Donnell's comment to his wife about the sun coming up tomorrow if the good will of men prevail speaks to the heart of this and virtually all other historical events. Individuals, good and evil, make the difference between darkness and light. History is replete with case after case of the fate of nations and peoples turning on the actions of one man or one woman. Donaldson's film is a testament to the strength of the individual. In this case, to a handful of politicians ability to resist the machinations of a military establishment bent on executing their "mission."
The most chilling scene in this film of terrifying truths comes at the end when, basking in the afterglow of "victory," the CIA director suggests we can "run the table" on the communists. In an almost casual aside he includes Southeast Asia in his assessment of easy victories to come.
"Are you a cult?" The old man's crooked finger hung less than an inch from Lauren Johnson's nose. "Are you a cult?," he shouted, in the way the nearly deaf have of including you in their hearing-impaired world. "Cause if you are I can make one phone call and have the lot of you in jail in 20 minutes. One phone call and 50 deputies will swoop down on you like thunder."
Sharon Ferranti was trying not to laugh, as her girlfriend juggled the irate man, a cell phone, and the production crew of their film. These two former Houstonians had come from Los Angeles with an 11-person crew, returning to Texas in August to a barren stretch near Amarillo notable for a towering cross. They are using it as a set for their remarkable short film A Thousand Miles, airing in rotation on the new cable Gay Television Network through May 2001. Their film is about a gay woman returning to Texas (a thousand mile trip) to confirm her mother's belated love abd acceptance. Lauren is on her cell phone desperately seeking a later flight back to Houston for one of their cast, Bettye Fitzpatrick, the long-standing doyen of the Alley Theatre. They have less than 48 hours to finish the film, and Bettye is due back at the Alley on Monday. Although Sharon and Lauren had clearance from the local authorities to do their filming, the 80-year-old-man man with the finger in Lauren's face has contributed to the financing of the religious site and feels proprietary about the giant, brilliant white cross which towers over the high, flat West Texas plains 40 miles east of Amarillo, visible from a distance of 27 miles. (Beyond that, the curvature of the earth itself begins to restrict visibility. Hard to miss as it already is, the icon's caretakers have nonetheless planted little Burma Shave-like signs along the only road leading up to it; the signs say "Cross" with a small black arrow pointing in its general direction.) Although Sharon grew up in Amarillo and knows folks like this, she presses her hand tightly against her mouth and lets Lauren struggle with the cult accusation.
"No sir!," Lauren shouts at the old man. "My parents raised me in the Southern Baptist tradition."
"Baptists are nothin but a damn cult!," he shouts back. Oh well. Lauren looked at Sharon and shrugged. The crew lost it and fell out laughing. Sharon decided to break for lunch.
I learn all this over dinner in West Hollywood with Lauren and Sharon, who are a couple in both work and life. A Thousand Miles is their joint labor of love, directed by Sharon, produced by Lauren, and written by the two together. Both native Texans, the two women attended the University of Houston at the same time, but did not meet until after they left. Lauren studied under Edward Albee in the nationally recognized UH creative writing school, and then went on to get a masters in playwrighting at UCLA. Sharon went on to the California Institute of the Arts story, as opposed to other film school who emphasize mere technical proficiency Their next project is another joint effort with the working title Contact Sports, a feature-length comedy about gay women and their obsession with softball. ("Anything people take way too seriously is potential comedy material," Sharon says.) They are looking forward to returning to Texas this winter to begin production. "We're ready to come home," they told me.
Their efforts to find a distributor for A Thousand Miles contributed to their desire to return to Texas. They are finding that the Hollywood movie industry, both mainstream and alternative, is more interested in the cost of production than the story being told. At least one executive refused to consider their film because it was not shot in 35mm. Another said, "We were riveted by your movie, we have never seen anything like it." This, says Lauren, was Hollywood-speak for "We don't have a clue how to market your film." When John Black of the Gay Television Network saw their movie, he immediately signed them to an 18-month contract. A Thousand Miles took to the festival circuit earlier this year winning awards in New York and Los Angeles. The story focuses on Jesse as she returns to Amarillo expecting reconciliation with her Christian Fundamentalist mom (Bettye Fitzpatrick). Suffice to say, Jesse does not get the homecoming she expects. Familiar territory so far, perhaps. But it is the Jesse's reaction that sets A Thousand Miles apart and above other similar stories, making it a moving film of clarity and depth. Bettye Fitzpatrick is among the most accomplished actors working today. Katherine Donahue as Jesse delivers an understated and powerful performance. Michael Fitzgerald, as Jesse's repressed tortured little brother Clay, is compelling.
Clear and cogent in her directing, Sharon Ferranti spent seven months editing this short film and the effort pays off. Much is conveyed in shots that linger with the character a little longer than most directors would allow. That extra second or two allows the audience the time to empathize with the character and better understand the film. For example, in one scene Jesse is telling Leslie, her lover, of her decision to return home. Leslie does not want Jesse to go for she has little faith in Clay's claim that Jesse's mother has forgiven her. Sharon's camera stays on Jesse after the conversation concludes. We see her consider and then resolve to go. The toughest scene to film, Sharon said, was one where Clay wrestles his mother, Maria, to the ground to escape her attempts to "drive the evil spirits" from him. In the same scene, Maria, speaks in tongues. The script merely says, "she speaks in tongues." When Sharon asked Bettye if she could handle it, Bettye replied, "Honey, I was raised in a foot-washin Baptist church, don't you worry."
The music, written and performed by Sharon's brother Jay Ferranti and sung by Lauren compliments the story without the usual distraction popular music brings to a film.
This is a short film, just 23 minutes. Challenging in ways a feature film is not; the short film cannot afford a wasted image or an unnecessary word of dialogue. A Thousand Miles rises to those challenges and delivers a powerful and poignant message. Lauren and Sharon resisted what they described as the pressure to write a story about gay women in stable and happy relationships. Instead, they chose to tell a story about the struggle for acceptance and tolerance that continues to plague the gay community. A Thousand Miles is still more than a story about that struggle. It is also a story about breaking through to the other side. Jesse achieves that breakthrough, and she does it on her own. That such a profound tale can be told in a 23 minutes is a powerful testament to the talent and vision of these two Texas filmmakers.
There is a gruesome aspect to Three Burials that threatens to overpower Jones' singular performance. More uncomfortably, Three Burials takes us too close to the ugly side of this life. Buried in the ugliness so visible is a spirit of - determination? love? desperation?
Take Rachel (Melissa Leo), the aging waitress of the pathetic diner. She's light as a feather, married to the grizzled short-order cook and dallying with the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakum in another excellent performance) as well as Jones' character, Pete Perkins. Pete is simultaneously simple, we see him early on sitting with his friends roping a metal steer, and complex, in the same scene we see his initial meeting with Melquiades. We see a fearful Mel, a romantic Mel, an innocent and a duplicitous Mel. No character is one dimensional in this sad and painful film. More than layered, though, these characters are scarred and burned by their ordinary lives. Lest we miss this message, the lovely January Jones tells us she and her husband, (Barry Pepper, finally in a role worthy of his talent) were once the most popular couple in their high school in Ohio. Ohio might as well be the moon in this mean and dirty Texas town. We passed through last year traversing Big Bend and rarely is the contrast between the magnificence of nature and the mess of man so clear. Here this happy high school Ken and Barbie are as lost as any two people we meet. As I write this I'm listening to a plaintive singer by the name of Cat Power sing, 'I hate myself and want to die." Can the world be any sadder? But I digress.
The author of this complex story of ordinary lives is Guillermo Arriaga of 21 Grams, another story of immense pain and loss. The film is not without hope or redemption but getting there is all the misery.
Entertaining but bizarre.
Most bizarre construct - Clooney (grizzled Special Forces grunt with a Peacenik bent) is lecturing Marky Mark (recruit wanting to see some action) on the nature of bullet wounds. We get a full screen view of the interior of the abdominal cavity as a bullet enters in slow motion. Clooney does the voice over, "if the bullet penetrates the spleen" as the bullet penetrates the spleen. Creepy. The marriage of gore and computer enhanced graphics raise the gross-out bar to heights never before imagined. In fact, imagine it and it can (and probably will) be graphically and realistically portrayed before your eyes.
Most bizarre character - Iraqi military sadist with US education. Mad at us for blowing up his family. Makes Marky Mark drink oil, yuk!
Another coming of age movie. Since I came of age a few decades back I don't relate to this particular artistic endeavor as perhaps I should. I do recognize world class acting when I see it and Tilda Swinton belongs to no other class. Keanu Reeves is perfect as a New Age orthodontist who, by the end of the film evolves into a Nihilist. It's his best role in years. Vince and Vincent (Vaughn and D'Onofrio) are compelling as always and newcomer Lou Taylor Pucci is more than up to his role as angst ridden teen. He is but the latest in a long and distinguished list from Tom Sawyer to Holden Caulfield to Samantha Baker and Igby Igby Goes Down Slocumb. I'm not sure what I am to take away from a film of this sort. I was entertained, certainly. Inspired by the overwhelming talent of Ms. Swinton, absolutely. Sensitized to the plight of the middle class youth looking for meaning in his middle class life, not really. Hard to grow up these days there is no doubt but harder now than then? I can't see it. It's always hard, always will be. Food for the creative mind? Of course - eat up artists. Do mind your manners if you don't mind. Take your thumb out of your mouth. Thank you.
The expression of truth is compromised in the act of expression. The method of expression, text, oil, marble, or film, belies the conveyor's prejudices or influences. That expression must again pass through a series of filters or influences when received. The corrupting influence of that transmission and receipt precludes us from ever beholding the truth in its pristine form.
This is just another facet of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. The measurement of the precise position and speed of an individual particle of matter is impossible because the very act of observation alters its position. The light used to examine the particle effects it. Hence, at the core of physics, the uncomfortable truth, we can never observe phenomena in their "natural" state.
Artists have struggled with the creative variant of this principle from time immemorial. The question at issue is ultimately a philosophical one. How can we know, with absolute certainty, what is real or truth?
In an effort to study the mind, the mind is used. To what extent does the mind influence, in ways unknowable, the study of itself? Is the truth grasped for in a Tennessee Williams play ever held? That truth is influenced by the actors, the theater, and the audience. The truth of a Williams' play, then, is a relative truth. The task is to identify as many of the extraneous influences as possible so as to neutralize them and move closer to the truth. This task challenges both the artist and the audience.
Mike Figgis, in the film Timecode, confronts many of these extraneous influences and holds them clearly before the audience. The movie consists of four continuous, contiguous shots, simultaneously displayed on the screen. The story is only roughly developed for the actors and they improvise much of the dialogue (if we are to believe the credits at the film's conclusion). The result is an hypnotic and exceptionally challenging work of moviemaking.
Salma Hayek, Jeanne Tripplehorn, and Stellan Skarsgard, make up the love triangle that drives the plot. Fueling the story are the characters obsessions with sex, drugs, alcohol, and fame. Several five point earthquakes and an equally strong soundtrack contribute to the films constant motion.
Alex, (Stellan Skarsgard) as the head of a film production company, responds to the pitch for a movie telling four simultaneous stories with, "I've never heard such a load of pretentious crap. But, you're obviously talented and you're intelligent, so maybe we'll work with you if you'll make a film with us that we want to make." Was this Figgis pitching Timecode to his producers, or even us?
Four hand-held digital cameras, recording a story about a movie production company getting pitched on a story told with four hand-held digital cameras. The struggling movie production company is in the middle of casting their latest project but none of the actresses reading for the lead have read the script. Timecode had no formal script. Figgis appears to be peeling back the layers of illusion to help us glimpse a truth. He seems to be saying the linear, single perspective method of storytelling has been rendered obsolete by new technology. Since reality is never the construct of a single mind (notwithstanding madness) but rather the confluence of multiple realities, the truer representation of the tale is told from multiple simultaneous perspectives. For my sake, I hope he's wrong. I don't know when I've worked so hard at a film. Alas, no pain...
The ultimate escape... time. To travel back to a time where baths were a luxury, windows consisted of oiled animal skin, and sport usually ended up with someone dead. I think I'd rather go forward. Not so lucky the time travelers of Timeline. Their inadvertently discovered wormhole invariably deposits them in fourteenth century France, on the eve of a decisive battle between the invading English monsters and the courteous and heroic French. Releasing this film in our current xenophobic client took some nerve. I was in the Texas hill country last month lunching at a quaint country diner where French Fries had been replaced with Freedom Fries. Those devilish French, unwilling to go along with our liberation of the Iraqi people! If only the Iraqi people would go along with our liberation, we could really rub those aristocratic French noses in it, eh? Well, at least Halliburton appreciates us. But I digress.
Timeline is another of Michael Crichton's page turning novels, thrilling to read and about as substantial as an eclair. Not that there's anything wrong with an eclair, unless you're Joan Hill, but that's another story. Anna Friel is the bright spot in this period piece. She plays Lady Claire, a noble French noblewoman. Almost as fun was David Thewlis as Richard Doniger, the amoral brains behind the time machine. His physical resemblance to Bill Gates is striking. Coupled with the character's boyish charm, brilliant manipulative abilities, and dependence on others with the know-how, he is a dead ringer for Mr. Gates. The recreation of the middle age castles, dirty little villages, and awesome catapults were sufficient to keep me interested throughout. Much like the good Doctor Chrichton's novels, full of really interesting stuff and as exciting as an amusement park. Can't wait till Prey is movied.
The Time Machine 03.8.02
Funny isn't it, how a story can be retold generation after generation? The Time Machine has lived more than a century now, as novel (1895), television drama (1949), film (1960), and film again. H.G. Wells wrote this story as well as War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, and is credited with the coinage of the expression, "the war to end all wars" in reference to World War I. His novel, The Time Machine, is one of the classic works of literature. It can be read on a variety of levels, action drama, science fiction, love story, study of class distinctions, exploration of the dichotomy of our conflicted internal nature, good versus evil.
The base and violent Morlocks live just below the surface with the apparently Utopian Eloi above. Initially, the time traveler sees these two species as the inevitable result of the split between worker and capitalist introduced by the onset of the Industrial Age. Foreshadowing his own conversion from Pacifist to supporter of the "Great War," our time traveler is soon confronted with a less simple explanation of this pacifist society living in fear and denial of the evil lurking below the surface.
This version is directed by the authors great-grandson, Simon Wells. The triumph of this latest version is in the truly horrific design and animation of the Morlocks. They are as scary as anything film has produced. Their tremendous power and speed of movement is nightmarish and only recently made possible with computer aided graphic post-production work. I twisted and recoiled as they chased the Eloi.
The failure in this version is the insertion of an evil mastermind controlling the Morlocks. As if we, like the Eloi, have become so enfeebled we cannot grasp the more complex and broader truth. We need a singular figure upon which to focus our attempt to understand. Jeremy Irons does lend some dignity to the role, despite his Edgar Winter look-alike appearance. Nonetheless, we are not sufficiently respected by the purveyors of the message and are treated to the children's version, big bad guy must be beaten before all is right again.
Sound familiar? Like the Ayotollah, Sadam, and now Osama, we are insufficiently respected by the purveyors of the political message (or the media or both) and treated to the children's version, big bad guy must be beaten and all will be well again. Like the forces that gave rise to each of these demagogues, though, unless the underlying cause can be apprehended and addressed, the latest big bad guy will simple give way to the next big bad guy.
Guy Pearce reprises the Rod Taylor role and Yancey Arias, Yvette Mimieux's. Both are adequate but not particularly noteworthy. The star of this film is the Morlock.
Twenty years ago, my little sisters best friend squealed in mock horror at my unexpected arrival in the midst of their slumber party. Her scream was "scary monkey!" Only last year, when watching The Wizard of Oz for the seventeenth time, did I associate her expression with the flying scary monkeys of the Wicked Witch of the West's castle. A new, much scarier version arrived this week. Very scary monkey!
Titan AE 06.16.00
The evil Drej destroy the Earth mere seconds after Cale's (Matt Damon) dad escapes with humanity's last hope, the Titan spacecraft. Cale is given a ring by his father and sent off on another escaping ship. The ring is a secret decoder ring (of course) that will serve as the map to the Titan, humanity's last hope. Fifteen years later, Corso (Bill Pullman - the President from Independence Day) catches up with Cale and the two of them set off to find The Titan. The pilot of Corso's ship, Akima (Drew Barrymore), is Cale's love interest. Once on board the Titan, an hour later, Cale and Akima discover genetic coding for all (former) life on Earth. Aha, Noah's Ark. I'm down with this. This is cool.
Make no mistake, this is a cartoon. Where Dinosaur could take your breath away with its sophisticated blend of animation and computer graphics, the most Titan A.E. will elicit is an occasional nod of approval. The Drej are unusual looking, electric-blue creatures, but all the other aliens look like Baby Huey on steroids.
By the way, this movie is rated PG. If you are assuming responsibility for humanity's real and perennial last hope, the next generation, Titan A.E. is one of those few films that, based on the advertising, you might be able to tolerate without serious damage to the few brain cells still functioning. The audience was about one third grown-ups, sans children, so the marketing appears to be working.
After a desperate battle with the Drej (evil, energy-based beings) and traitors (et tu, Corso) Cale engages the Titan spacecraft. Lo! and behold! Humanity saves itself!
Sure enough, Cale's dear departed dad created a device that can create a planet and populate it with all known species of life. Sound familiar? The original version can be found in the first book of the Torah. It's called Genesis.
Here is the problem. Large numbers of children will view this movie. The subliminal message goes something like this:
Evil creatures, creatures not at all like us, destroy the Earth, but we figure out how to create our own planet with all our familiar life forms. And we don't need any help to do it. Just one brave guy and one cute girl, oh, and a dead dad. Every other life form in this film is silly or mean or ugly or evil. Humanity is at the absolute top of the evolutionary ladder. Other life forms destroy planets, we create them. The food our hero eats is alive at consumption! And, there is nothing beyond our temporal plane of existence.
The universe consists of humans and a bunch of inferior or evil or silly life forms. Akima asks Cale what name he will give the planet he just created.
Now that makes for a very scary universe!
Toy Story is fun and entertaining. The real secret is the audience. The theater was filled with kids and their gasping and cheering was better than the movie. They surrendered to the experience.
Drug traffic, that is. Between Mexico and the US. Told from the perspectives of virtually all the stakeholders. US and Mexican drug czars, US and Mexican dealers (wholesale), US and Mexican cops, but only US users. Specifically, the sixteen-year-old daughter of the US drug czar, played by Erika Christenson. Director Steven Soderbergh (Erin Brokavich & Sex, Lies, and Videotape) creates a dense tapestry of interwoven stories clearly told. The only weak moment in the movie is Catherine Zeta-Jones attempt to take over her husband's distribution network. She doesn't know anything about her husband's illegal activities on Monday and by Friday innovates a new method for drug transport and makes a play for her husband's business. Her transformation from innocent homemaker to drug queenpin wannabe lacked credibility.
Tomas Milian as the corrupt Mexican drug-czar delivers a compelling performance. Benecio Del Toro is brilliant as the good Mexican cop. The damage drugs do is forcefully presented. The last lines of the film are delivered in a drug rehab setting, "we're here to listen." Good advice.
Training Day 10.20.01
Antoine Fuqua is a music video director with a couple of shoot-em-up films to his credit, Bait and The Replacement Killers. His third shoot-em-up film is Training Day. Clearly inspired by the Rampart LAPD scandal, Training Day takes us through a very long day in the life of super cop Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) and rookie Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke). Is Alonzo a good guy or a bad guy? Is Jake a wimp or not? This is the dramatic tension that purports to hold our interest for yet another too long movie.
Fuqua's MTV style shows through all too clearly when Jake inadvertently smokes some PCP. The hazy color stuff has got to go. Trying to portray being high with colored lenses and gauze just does not work. Try Pacino in Panic In Needle Park if you want to know how to portray being high in a film. It's called ACTING, not tricky camera angles and birds on the wing. Hip-hop chanteuse Macy Gray steals the film as the nasty wife of an incarcerated drug dealer. She was real. Snoop Dog plays a wheel-chair bound dealer and is clearly focused on his next career as a movie star. He recently did some awful vampire thing I may catch on Encore some late night next year.
I suppose I did find myself wondering for a few minutes whether evil acts in the pursuit of good are justifiable. There may have been a sub-strata of ethical depth to this film but the characters too quickly occupied their polar extremes to allow for much retro- or introspection. Denzel is an extraordinary talent and that talent was in evidence for the first half hour or so. It was soon crushed by the heavy hand of the director. Back to music videos, Antoine, but leave Macy Gray with us.
I had the good fortune to see an interview with Felicity Huffman about the film before I saw it. I learned her connection with the film was born in her once (and perhaps continuing) discomfort with her own body. Her passion, her strength and her sensitivity are ever present in her acting and were clear in the interview as well. Although Kevin Zegers commendably holds up well by comparison, this is a Huffman vehicle and a moving story. A trans-sexual she is on her way to a life changing operation when a surprise son surfaces in a NY jail. She retrieves him, against her better judgement, and the two of them drive cross country back to LA. The story is episodic and entertaining but the power of the film is in the performance. This is a benchmark film, setting a standard of performance for others to seek. That the story is of one person's search for self-acceptance is icing on the cake. Odd, isn't it, that at time when our society seems hell bent on cutting off anything outside a narrow range of acceptable behavior our films are busy pasting the different and the challenging back on as fast as they can?
Right on all counts. Thrilling big action epic by Michael Bay, the king of blow 'em up movies, incredibly shallow, even stupid story based on not even a comic book but on a toy. The opening credits include a brought to you by Hasbro screen. Hasbro, the crummy toy maker. Transformers were dumb then and they are dumb now. The special effects were cool, the dual story line kept us awake for the first hour. The climactic battle scene between Optimus Prime and Megatron was way too fast and furious, I couldn't tell who was who or what was happening. I'm not sure it would have mattered.
OK, if you plan to see Trapped, and you should not, read no further. You will soon learn that the kidnapped girl is OK and the bad guys get caught. Oh oops, I did it!
This is the tenth movie named Trapped in the past sixty years. That should tell us something. Nothing could prepare us, though, for the humdinger of an ending. To get the full effect you'll need some background. Hickey (Kevin Bacon), his slightly retarded cousin Marvin (Pruitt Taylor Vince), and Hickey's wife Cheryl (Courtney Love) are capping off their kidnapping career with the daughter of the anesthesiologist they mistakenly believe killed their (Cheryl and Hickey's) little girl. This is the fifth time they have kidnapped a child while the rich dad is out of town. Hickey stays with the mom (she has to be pretty, we later learn, and I guess we all know why) while Cheryl stays with the dad. Marvin baby-sits the kid, while mom wire transfers the money to a bank where dad can pick it up and give it to Cheryl. Then the kid and mom are rendezvoused and everyone goes back to their happy rich people lives.
Only this time the mom is a real tiger from hell and dad is the sort of doctor that carries around a paralyzing drug and antidote with him when he goes to conventions. He uses it on Cheryl. She doesn't like the feeling it gives her so she switches sides to help dad save the day which Dad does by landing his seaplane on the highway causing a big truck full of big logs to crash into the back of the truck Marvin is driving with Abby (the child actress Dakota Fanning) beside him which causes the big truck of logs to jack knife and slide toward the landed plane so that dad and Cheryl have to jump out at the last minute to avoid being crushed by the sliding truck of logs, which helps to distract Hickey long enough that mom (the marvelous Charlize Theron) can dig her nails into the wound she inflicted with a scalpel to Hickey's groin, back when he was getting fresh, causing him to roll the BMW he stole from the lady locked up in the trunk who mom releases thereby giving herself a tire iron which she uses to clunk Hickey who she then later shoots to death just before administering the asthma medicine to her stricken daughter, Abby, who awakens to see mom and dad together again and everyone lives happily ever after. Except Hickey who's dead and Cheryl who is led off in cuffs and Marvin who, well you know, Marvin just sort of disappears. Anyway, thats the final scene and you have to agree it was a real humdinger, albeit a little complicated and overdone.
Surely one of the great ironies of my lifetime will be the election of a black man to the presidency within three years of the time we allowed a major American city and its black population to drown. Countless millions of us watched in horror as our desperate fellow citizens waved banners from rooftops and highway overpasses begging to be saved. Ordinarily cool media anchors broke down on camera or lost control talking to the distant authorities as they listened too long to the insistence that everything that could be done was being done. Not too long after we were all outraged again when a military junta refused to allow humanitarian relief to their people devastated by another hurricane. Few made the connection but both "authorities" were being served by the devastation of elements of their population. Hungry, subsistence level men, women and children from a third world were suddenly on a par with hungry, subsistence level men, women and children from the ninth ward. Three years later and most of the white population has returned to New Orleans while the black population has been "resettled." Our President's mom said they never had it so good as they did sleeping on cots in the Astrodome, those responsible for rendering aid blamed the victims for not evacuating when they had the chance.
We hear the truth from amateur filmmaker Kimberly Rivers Roberts as she and her husband remain behind as neighbors and relatives drive away. They have no car and no means. They can no more evacuate than could the fisherman and his family in the Irrawaddy delta in Burma. But Kimberly has a new digital camera and way too much personality to hunker down. She's in her attic, in the storm, at a shelter showing and telling us all, as it happens. In the shelter she runs into a professional documentary film crew and tells them, "no one's got what I got on this camera, this is it, baby." The pros, Carl Deal and Tia Lessin accompany Kimberly and her husband as they return to the ninth ward weeks later. Merging Kim's film with theirs, the result is a cinema verite of the highest order and a haunting commentary on our dysfunctional, schizophrenic society.
None of us should be surprised if the signal comment on our time is the sad spectacle of our abandonment of our fellow citizens coupled with our proud celebration at transcending racism in electing a black man president. Really.
The good news about Troy is Eric Bana. After Hulk we were more than a bit concerned that he was on the David Caruso path to obscurity. His Hector was the high point of Homer's original as well as Wolfgang Petersen's remake. Brad Pitt's Achilles, Brian Cox's Agamemnon (save for one trite and nearly bizarre scene where he stands amid the burning Troy screaming, "let Troy burn") and Orlando Bloom's Paris were all good enough to keep us interested. Achilles' bellowing for Hector before the walls of Troy his scene with the aged Priam/Peter O'Toole competed for top honors but the award for most compelling belongs to Eric Bana's Hector.
I have to admit to tiring of the big action sequences. I appreciate all the work and all the computer processing power that goes into these massive battle scenes but they do not add that much to the film. It's always interesting to see what 50,000 soldiers actually looks like but I don't know that I need to see them repeatedly crashing into one another. The dizzying close-ups of sword slashing this way and that, spears spearing and clubs clubbing is more something to endure than enjoy. Yes, yes, I realize this is first and foremost the story of a great war, but maybe we could tell it with half the battle scenes. Like Fast and Furious and Faster and Furiouser, we get the fast car stuff, we get it. I wonder if the folks responsible for the repetitive styles would eat nothing but deserts if left to their own devices. But I digress.
Troy is undeniably gripping despite it's extraordinary length. The characters are archetypes with which we are all too familiar and the underlying motivations of glory, greed, and revenge are remarkably unchanged from the Aegean of three millennia past to the fertile crescent of 2004. Only time will tell if the names of Wolfowitz and Cheney will echo down the halls of time along with the names of Hector and Achilles. Oh, maybe not, Wolfowitz and Cheney got draft deferments. Odysseus was right, old men talk and young men die.
I am a little ashamed to admit I never read the book. I did overhear a teen-age girl walk out of the theater, on her cell phone (nice enough to leave the movie when she took the call), telling someone, "oh it's not that bad, it is a little silly though." That's all I know.
Tupac: Resurrection 11.22.03
Tupac: Resurrection 11.22.03
Tupac Shakur, godfather of gangsta rap, was shot to death in a Las Vegas intersection in September 1996. He is "resurrected" through archival footage and interviews in this retelling of his short life. He narrates the story from what must be Thug Mansion, the title to one of his catchier and more meaningful tunes. His mother was a member of the Black Panthers and his father was a street criminal. He grew up in grinding poverty and rose to fame on the strength of his talent for rap. He landed a handful of movie roles and met with generally favorable reaction. His murder was preceded by a "war" between the East and West Coast rap music crowds. This was about the time that Hip-Hop, a more life affirming strain of rap, was making its breakthrough. The war was one of words, occasionally caught in song. Tupac attacked East Coast rapper/producer Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs for appearing in the songs he produced and was particularly offensive toward Biggie Smalls, another East Coast rapper. Tupac's support crew included Snoop Doggy Dog and a real gangster and president of Death Row Records, Suge Knight. Earlier in the evening of his death, he and Knight beat up a LA gang member on the floor of a Vegas hotel. Whether he was murdered by East Coast rappers for his insults or the Crips took their revenge for the beating of their gang member will likely never be known.
What makes all this compelling is the "live by the sword, die by the sword" element of Tupac's demise and his struggle to transcend the violence of his past while attempting to remain true to his roots. By his own words, the Thug Life he embraced was more a reference to poverty and lack than the more obvious meaning of the word. Nonetheless, he served more than one jail term for violent crimes, including sexual battery, and was no stranger to the guns that eventually took his life. A charismatic and talented artist, dead for not much of a reason. A sad story.
The story of a woman (Janet McTeer) and her daughter (Kimberly J. Brown), MaryJo and Ava Walker. The movie opens with MaryJo in a fight with husband/boyfriend number X. She tells Ava to pack (Ava already has, she's been through this before) and off they go into the night and the next doomed relationship. Janet McTeer will surely earn an Oscar nomination for best actress.
Why are some women condemned to seek out horrible men? What truth does the Genesis passage reveal about women? (You know, the one where women are condemned to pain and childbirth and longing for men.) Is man's arrogance tied up in the same human flaw?
Ashley Judd, Ashley Judd, Ashley Judd. She can do more with a subtle facial expression than most do with a soliloquy. In Twisted, she plays a disturbed and recently promoted homicide detective on the trail of a serial killer. If ever there were an opportunity for over acting, this was it. Instead, she underplays the role and it works, she is spellbinding. I first noticed her in Eye of the Beholder, a thoroughly unremarkable movie, in Double Jeopardy she carried her weight with Tommy Lee Jones, no mean feat. High Crimes put her on screen with another heavy weight, James Caviezel (the new Jesus, poor soul) and last week Twisted. There is a disappointing similarity to her roles, crazy killer (Eye of the Beholder), victim of crazy killer husband (Double Jeopardy), victim of alleged crazy killer husband (High Crimes), and investigator of crazy killer/suspect (Twisted). I look forward to De-lovely in which she will play the wife of Cole Porter. A heavier Andy Garcia brightens up Twisted but little else about it is distinguishable from a slug of other murder mystery thrillers. Ashley Judd makes it worth it. She should soon join the first rank of screen gems in everyone else's view, she's already there in mine.
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