Steamboat Round The Bend (1935): Dir. John Ford
John Ford's final collaboration with Will Rogers is
the pair's finest. Both Judge Priest and Doctor Bull lacked a certain dramatic surge that Steamboat Round The Bend offers like an
engine run on moonshine. Rogers
plays Doc John, a huckster peddling snake oil on the Mississippi in the
1890's. He teams with a feisty swamp girl when her husband -- John's nephew Duke -- is put on death row. The climax dovetails nicely with a
steamboat race to Baton Rouge where Duke awaits the gallows. A brisk eighty minutes, Steamboat not only has the narrative
propellant and comedic charms to satisfy viewers; it depicts a Civil War resentful South in the process of reconstruction, floating between modernism and an adherence to old Southern values. We see
medicine shows and false prophets, bands playing Dixie and a traveling wax-museum of historical figures frozen in time (much like the Antebellum South) that end up sacrificial fuel for the steamboat engines. Industry churns forward and leaves the
old ways behind in a puff of smokey exhaust.
That the young lady goes from unholy bayou-brat to proper belle
to first-rate steamboat captain furthers the film's theme of necessary
progressivism. Like all Ford's
work, Steamboat delights as it
recounts yet another small chapter in America's ongoing narrative odyssey.
Monday, December 17, 2012
There’s a scene in the original Red Dawn, after the squad of guerilla teenagers discovers that they’ve been betrayed by one of their own, when they stand him in the snow for execution. The leader, Jed (Patrick Swayze), cannot bring himself to pull the trigger, but then, one of the others, without missing a beat, raises his rifle and blows his friend completely away. John Milius’ 1984 Cold War-paranoia-action-movie Red Dawn, which starred a bunch of Brat Pack mainstays as the Wolverines, a renegade fighting force battling Soviet invaders, was never a great film. In fact, it has become a punch line if hardly the gripping cautionary tale its director surely meant it to be. Much of the derision is targeted at Milius’ war being pretend, hypothetical. (Wasn’t Orwell’s 1984 just a hypothetical future?) To the director, however, the Cold War was very real, and its potential destructive power was nothing to joke about. Wherever you stand, Red Dawn undoubtedly understood the cost of war, that it takes not only our land and our loved ones, but also our humanity, which is perhaps the greatest casualty of all.
For all its failings, 1984’s Red Dawn was at least the work of someone with a vision and a point-of-view. 2012’s Red Dawn is, in contrast, a complete hack-job: The Hunger Games with commies. The new “warriors” look like J. Crew catalogue models holding assault rifles. There’s a thick layer of risible ridiculousness coating every frame of this entire 90-minute piece of soulless claptrap. To update its story for a new generation, the invading army now belongs to the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea (don’t let the name fool you). Why the North Koreans? It was supposed to be the Chinese until the studio decided they didn’t want to anger a massive market demographic, so they swapped nations in post by dubbing-over the Chinese with Korean and replacing all the emblems and flags. How the hell could North Korea ever invade Middle America? That’s a better question. I’ll tell you: they’ve developed an electro-magnetic-pulse machine that obliterated the American power grid. It’s the film’s flux capacitor, basically. Other than those changes, the basic premise is the same. Enemy soldiers parachute into small town U.S.A. and turn it into an occupied combat zone. A group of local teenagers escape to the woods where they form a small militia to fight-off their oppressors.
That’s where the similarities end, however. The first Red Dawn was essentially a Western, set along the forests and mountains of the Rockies and their foothills. The heroes rode horses and adapted to changing weather. The terrain allowed them to attack surreptitiously from their own backyards. Red Dawn 2.0 takes place in the upper northwest near Seattle. The kids find solace in the woods, but the film has no consideration for nature’s generous-dangerous navigability. Seattle’s temperate climate explains the seasonal stasis, but not our befuddled sense of time elapse. It looks as if the whole movie was shot in about two months at summer camp. Since most of the fighting takes place in urban areas, this version is supposed to suggest a more modern war. If so, why not set it in New York City or Chicago or Washington D.C.? That would be a complete change-up from the original’s backwoods mountaineering and would also offer an ironic and timely twist on the occupier/insurgent paradigm in Baghdad today. Milius had learned from greats like Leone and Ford to appreciate the power of the wide-shot and the still frame. Director Dan Bradley has gathered from his generation’s “masters”—Tony Scott and Michael Bay—that suffocating compositions, never settling on actor’s faces, and shaking the camera epileptically is the only way to create suspense.
Milius went to great efforts to make his movie feel important, despite its borderline absurd conceit. The violence was bloody. There was subversion in images of American civilians in concentrations camps and in front of firing squads—or American guerillas fighting off foreigners in a tribute to the natives who once so bravely battled pioneers and explorers for that very same land. The squad of youths had a Lord of the Flies dynamic: Patrick Swayze was the morally conflicted leader, Jennifer Grey was the stealthy bait, and C. Thomas Howell was the vengeful monster. Even the enemies were complex, with the Cuban commander sweating his newfound role as an occupying tyrant. I can’t tell you squat about any of the characters in the new Red Dawn, besides that Chris Hemsworth plays an on-leave Marine who leads the group and argues with his quarterback little bro (Josh Pence) about some perfunctory betrayal. The characters in this remake needn’t worry about losing their humanity. They never had it to begin with.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
Who knew the fate of the free world might one day depend on a hotdog? I’m not talking about President Franklin D. Roosevelt (though he was a bit of a hotdog); I’m referring to the meal served King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during their famous visit to America in July of 1939, when the nations solidified an alliance on the eve of WWII. Hyde Park on Hudson, which stars funnyman Bill Murray as the bespectacled commander-and-chief, is a starchy if mercifully brief comedy-of-manners, depicting that momentous event with the dramatic flimsiness of the aforementioned frank (again, not FDR).
Set entirely at the Roosevelt family estate in the pastoral New York countryside, the movie presents our 32nd president as a remorseless flatterer, a smarmy maestro with political disingenuousness coursing through his blue-blooded veins. If he’s tolerable at all, it’s because of Murray, who echoes Roosevelt’s iconic eccentricities—the ear-to-ear grin, the chewed-on cigarette holder, and the transatlantic accent—without ever resorting to caricature. In the best scene, Franklin consoles England’s stuttering monarch over cognac. “The people see us for who they want us to be”, he says while dragging his lifeless legs arduously across the room. The public never knew of his polio-induced paralysis, and Murray understands Roosevelt’s role as a symbolic giant, a man who couldn’t stand but stood-up for a nation.
Conversely, director Roger Mitchell and his team expend most of their efforts fussing with focal depths and artsy landscapes, while their movie, for all its aesthetic polish, stays quietly seated. The mansion is actually owned by Mrs. Sara Roosevelt (Elizabeth Colman), Franklin’s widowed mother and one of several women vying for his affection. The first lady, Eleanor (Olivia Williams), is domineering and jealous of her husband’s personal secretary, Missy (Elizabeth Marvel), who schedules his life like a series of play-dates. FDR’s distant cousin and mistress, Daisy Suckley, is constantly hanging around with sinus-headache medication. “He gets them this time of year,” she blithely observes. Laura Linney (who narrates) plays Margaret as repressed and spacey, a naïf alternating between floozy and nursemaid. The house comes off as an unconsciously misogynistic compound of Oedipal polygamy.
The plot’s centerpiece sequence is the King and Queen’s visit, which transpires like Gosford Park minus the trenchant classism and the absorbing mystery. (Is it wrong that I wished for a murder, so FDR could pull out a pipe and magnified glass and look for clues?) The real story here is the parallel between Frank and King Bertie (Samuel West). Both came from politically aristocratic families, had debilitating ailments, and were forced to negotiate major national crises. However, Margaret’s tale of girlish swooning is the filmmakers’ priority, and the two stories never work in tandem, especially since Murray’s Roosevelt can’t provide the necessary sinew. On the periphery, Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman) is whining about the lack of fine dining options to our constant annoyance.
Which brings us to the hotdog that changed the world. Historians often trace the Anglo-American coalition—which until the twentieth century was tenuous to say the least—back to that weekend, where an outdoor picnic and ballpark sausage with mustard stood for an unspoken diplomatic agreement. (No reigning British monarch had ever set foot on American soil before.) Hyde Park on Hudson, with its narrative incongruities and stuffy ensemble, is never the cinematic banquet it was meant to be. This period piece serves a measly dog.
Sunday, December 9, 2012
Even for a gangster movie Killing Them Softly is grisly. It’s surprising how elaborately it also functions as an allegory for the Stock Market collapse of 2008, a far less physical but considerably more detrimental series of crimes. The film was written and directed by Andrew Dominick, the Australian best known for his lyrical, revisionist Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That film was a masterpiece, a poetic historical tragedy that introduced Brad Pitt as a born-again great actor. Only Dominick’s third feature, this is his second already tackling the ruthless landscape of American outlaws. With Brad Pitt back as the central anti-hero, Dominick’s latest is cynical and violent—maybe too much so for some—but its formal audacity, thematic wit, and chilling lead performance make it a visceral and intellectual piece of high-brow pulp art.
Brad Pitt plays mob enforcer Jackie Cogan who’s assigned to punish the hoods (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) who unwisely knocked-over a mob-financed poker game. Analogous to Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy and the crisis it fomented, the heist unbalances the criminal underworld; big-spending players will no longer risk their cash, which causes problems for the whole black market economy. Jackie is summoned to set a precedent (don’t mess with the Mafia!) and to restore order and faith in the system. He uses every trick in the hit man handbook—beatings, shootings, intimidation, and deception—to that end. If the stick-up men are crooked investors, taking advantage of a sensitive fiscal ecosystem, then Jackie is a government bailout with all the associated unscrupulousness.
Pitt’s performance—yet another in a recent streak of tour-de-forces—is terrifyingly calm. Jackie’s a tranquil surface atop fearsome depths, like a beckoning hot tub filled with hydrochloric acid. He’s a sociopath, no doubt, but he’s no sadist; he’s pragmatic, a business-like problem-solver that trades uppercuts instead of bonds and carries hollow-points instead of fountain pens. In furtive rendezvous with a shark-suited mob rep (Richard Jenkins), Jackie expresses his distaste for face-to-face slayings: “There’s too many feelings,” he says. He’s a terminator who prefers to dish out homicides like they’re pink slips. Through his gutsy conceit, Dominick blurs any moral distinction between corporatized thugs and thuggish corporations. Although his allegory is slightly belabored with overused campaign-speech sound bites, the director’s ideas are still caustic and urgent.
In Jesse James, Dominick displayed his gift for elegant imagery and his eagerness for aesthetic and stylistic experimentation. In Killing Them Softly, he stages the instigating robbery with a conscious banality, stretching it out like taffy to the point of tedious intensity. It’s no Michael Mann set piece pulled off by swift, efficient professionals; it’s an exercise in ineptitude featuring two amateurish bums in dishwashing gloves and panty-hose shrouds. Later, an assassination unfolds in operatic slow motion amidst a gale of falling rain and shattering glass. A conversation between conspirators intermittently fades in and out as if from consciousness, ebbing and flowing like a conversation attempted from a heroin coma. Scored to dreamy golden oldies (“It’s Only A Paper Moon”, for instance), the violence is nauseating and the victims are as pitiable as bunny rabbits. The carnage has a merciless horror that’s hard to forgive or forget.
The world of Killing Them Softly is an asphalt jungle indeed: predators and prey on the prowl in the most Darwinian sense. American individualism is the target of Dominick’s cinematic scrutiny, and Jackie Cogan embodies its dog-eat-dog competitiveness—that strangle-your-neighbor-with-your-bootstraps kind of corrupted capitalist dream. Admittedly, the movie has an avante garde narrative shapelessness (especially during James Gandolfini’s distended romantic monologues) that can be trying, and Jesse James was definitely a subtler film. Still, with its overcast monochromatic look and its sequences of hideous human cruelty, the film is gorgeous in its very ugliness, hypnotically hooking you before pulling the trigger. Killing Them Softly is a gentle whisper followed by a brass-knuckle sandwich. It leaves a bruise.
Saturday, December 8, 2012
Hitchcock would scoff at Hitchcock.
Melodramatic and thin, this biographical movie-within-a-movie—chronicling Psycho’s arduous production in 1959—is all bomb and no build-up. Directed with TV-movie-blandness by Sacha Gorvasi and written with the cursory touchstone haste of a Wikipedia article by John J. McLaughlin (based on a book by Stephen Rebello), Hitchcock erroneously mistakes on-the-nose bluntness for sly suggestion. For example: To intimate Hitchcock’s much-surmised obsession with his leading ladies there’s a scene of him drooling over their headshots like one of Pavlov’s dogs; to insinuate that his voyeurism wasn’t restrained to cinematography we watch him spy Vera Miles in her skivvies through a dressing room peephole.
Hitchcock not only takes liberties with rumors that have never actually been substantiated; it fails to recognize that the filmmaker’s allure has always been his ambiguity. Even Hitchcock himself loved to perpetuate his own sleazy mythology, through interviews and iconic signifiers (like his chubby, profiled silhouette). From his old suspense adage (“There’s no excitement in the explosion, only in its anticipation”), clearly Hitchcock understood the thrill of Mystery, especially when his reputation and oeuvre only deepened the enigma. The common hypothesis espoused by critics is that Hitchcock lived through his viewfinder; when you watch an Alfred Hitchcock thriller, you’re seeing the world through his idiosyncratic gaze. No matter how well made, a Hitchcock biopic can never capture the quagmires and contradictions of the real guy as effectively as the films themselves.
Hitchcock opens curiously, not with the eponymous Brit, but with backwoods serial killer Ed Gein (the inspiration for Psycho) whacking his brother in the head with a shovel. Then follow the felicitous notes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ opening theme, and the requisite “Good eeevening…” announces the arrival of Anthony Hopkins buried in prosthetics. The lead performance, while admirable, is not a transformative embodiment; it’s a spot-on impersonation. Fatally hindered by paltry screenwriting and direction, Hopkins has little space for emotional discovery. Admittedly, he does channel Hitchcock’s more superficial quirks with aplomb—the plummy accent and the elongated syllabic diction. As for the gallows humor, Hopkins spits morbid witticisms with a touch of playful venom.
The success of North By Northwest in 1959 prompts Paramount to demand a facsimile. Hitchcock’s even offered Ian Fleming’s spy novel Casino Royale. But the director isn’t interested; he’s looking for something dark, devious, and more challenging. He chooses an adaptation of Robert Bloch’s macabre bestseller, Psycho: And why not? It’s got blood and gore. It’s got nudity. It kills off its lead halfway through. The censors and studio heads are dreading Alfred Hitchcock’s (wet) dream project like a stabbing in the shower. God forbid Paramount suffer another Vertigo, a masterpiece dismissed in its time! Hitch is unassailable and finances the film by mortgaging his own Beverly Hills mansion. He hires novice screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Ralph Macchio) on the cheap; he casts A-list actress Janet Leigh (Scarlet Johansson) as the doomed heroine and boy-next-door Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) as the owner and operator of the Bates Motel.
Johansson as Janet Leigh is the film’s amiable peach, its most fetching, come-hither asset. Then there’s Vera Miles (Jessica Biel), one of several notable actresses who swear to this day that Hitchcock sought to ruin their careers. Miles is written as the intoned voice of the postmodern critical community, sharing now platitudinous insights: “You know Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo?” she tells Leigh, “That’s really Hitchcock, only younger, slimmer, and better looking.” Thanks, Vera. Did you get that from Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius? In a preparatory meeting, D’Arcy portrays Perkins like he’s Norman Bates, all fidgety boyishness. The unconscious implication is that Perkins was merely playing himself, which shortchanges one of the greatest performances in history.
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Adapting Life of Pi seems like a fool’s errand. Written by philosopher-novelist Yan Martel, the 2001 bestseller follows a shipwrecked Indian boy as he drifts across the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a fully-grown Bengal tiger for company. That minimalist plot alone is an obstacle that only the boldest or most masochistic of directors would undertake. Secondly, the novel is less a story-driven narrative than a philosophical treatise, a meditative exploration of faith and survival (akin to Noah, Jonah, or Job) with the sweep and moral overtones of a biblical parable. But under the gentle guidance of Taiwanese director Ang Lee, Life of Pie comes to the screen as a thoughtful, magical-realist vision quest; its symbolism and significance are preserved and rendered lyrical, cinematic.
In preamble, we’re introduced to the titular castaway, Piscine “Pi” Patel (Suraj Sharma), a denizen of Pondicherry, the French-colonial quarter of India. Quizzical and clever, he develops his mathematical moniker to avoid schoolyard embarrassment (Piscine sounds too much like pissing to his callous classmates). Traipsing about the family zoo, Pi is fascinated by the various animals, specifically the aforementioned feline, Richard Parker. Though born and raised Hindu, Pi adopts the tenets and rituals of Christianity and Islam, too, naïve or indifferent to the inherent paradoxes. His father myopically bemoans what he considers blind worship. Shot with a 64-color crayon-box visual palette, the initial prologue is a charming vignette, where Pi’s resourcefulness, piety, and fortitude are setup to be tested.
When he’s sixteen, the family hops a freighter to Canada (their animals in tow). Mid-route, a massive squall capsizes the ship, leaving Pi stranded on a life raft with the carnivorous Richard Parker. Like Cast Away or 127 Hours, the film is a personal saga of survival. Pi’s livelihood depends entirely on his ability to catch fish and rainwater, avoid exposure, and maintain sanity. Through Lee’s painterly images, we’re enveloped by the ocean’s impressive vastness; we experience its difficult navigability, and we empathize with Pi’s insignificance opposite its scope and grandeur. The presence of Richard Parker is a risible disadvantage, but Pi finds that his fear of and responsibility to the hungry beast have unexpected benefits. It’s riveting to watch how his unyielding positivity allows him to negotiate a seemingly impossible situation.
Pi feels an ineffable connection to Richard Parker. His father warns that peering into a tiger’s eyes is actually a self-reflection, a telescope to view one’s own essence. Richard Parker is, metaphorically, an extension of Pi, symbolic of the intrinsic brutality that, on the raft, Pi struggles to isolate as an external manifestation. Illustrated by Lee’s majestic cinematography and visual effects, the ocean connotes a kind of reflecting pool; its glassy surface is an enormous mirror off which the sky’s crimson emissions can bounce to and fro. In a surrealist sequence, Pi, starving and delirious, stares into the moonlit water. In his point-of-view, we swim in a hallucinatory trance only to reemerge from behind his eyes. The sea’s physical depth provides a metaphysical glance into the protagonist’s own spiritual makeup.
The journey is framed by a conversation between Pi (Irfan Khan), now an older man, and an author (Rafe Spall) looking to novelize his experience. The flashbacks that form the central storyline cannot to be taken as the exact series of events. Not only is Pi narrating through the haze of memory and time; he can only comprehend his adventure subjectively, by the ways it shaped and defined him. Pi then tells a completely different version of the ordeal, a far more plausible and far less enchanting one. Since neither narrative can be proven or disproven, the viewer is encouraged to decide for themselves which they believe to be true. Through this device, Life of Pi impresses the importance of storytelling in our lives. As in Tim O’Brien’s seminal Vietnam chronicle, The Things They Carried, Lee’s film asserts that sometimes logic must be forfeited for the sake of higher understanding. In his philosophical allegory, Martel proved that storytelling, like faith, can be a valuable tool to providing an enlightened perspective on the world and our place in it.
Lee is a skillful storyteller himself: He directs non-actor Suraj Sharma to an ingenuous performance, notably in a climactic teary-eyed monologue. The use of CGI and 3-D accentuate the film’s aesthetic splendor (like National Geographic videos doodled-on by Salvador Dali), spinning the environment—the sea and the stars—into one sensuously bewitching tableaux of universal inter-connectedness. Similar to this year’s The Sessions or 2008’s Hunger, the movie considers both spiritual strength and corporeal fragility. It uniquely suggests, though, in a touch of the Rastafarian, that Pi’s physical resilience and spiritual transcendence have a symbiotic relationship, that one helps invigorate the other. As trite as it may sound, Life of Pi is truly a testament to the endurance of the body and soul.
Monday, November 26, 2012
Lincoln the man, the politician, the professor, the father, the martyr, and the myth: director Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary new biopic (based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin) reveals the many layers of its subject with the grace and solemnity of a battlefield hymn. With cinematic shape-shifter Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role, Lincoln is the most powerful and profound and deeply moving Hollywood dramatization of the American icon’s life since 1939—when Henry Fonda donned the famous hat and beard in John Ford’s peerless classic Young Mr. Lincoln.
From War Horse’s sumptuous green valleys to Lincoln’s traditionally high-contrast interiors, it’s evident that Spielberg yearns to echo the majesty of that late cinematic deity. But where Ford began Lincoln’s journey, depicting his humble origins as an Illinois litigator, Spielberg finishes it. By early 1865—the waning days of the Civil War—that promising youth had grown into a weary elder statesman. If his presidency and life were fatefully truncated by a gunshot at Ford’s Theater, Spielberg’s film reminds us that his legacy lives in his immortal doctrines and words.
The film begins with a fierce skirmish in the pouring rain and mud. But the war on the battlefield is basically over (spoiler: The South lose). A new conflict is brewing in the halls of Congress, wherein Lincoln seeks to ratify the 13th Amendment, thereby lawfully and constitutionally abolishing slavery. Dissension among rival partisans and a potential Southern peace negotiation combine to complicate the procedure of ratification. Lincoln’s stressed-out Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), is tasked with procuring the twenty congressional votes needed to reach a two-thirds consensus. Assisted by three colorful lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson), (dis)honest Abe exercises the chicanery intrinsic in democratic politics, suggesting that lawmaking is essentially a game of wheeling and dealing.
The film depicts a veritable hen House of Representatives, where squabbling debaters hurl insults about in eloquent 19th century vernacular. Occasionally, I worried the movie would wallow excessively in the legislature, but the complex domesticity of the White House aptly dispensed those concerns. As the screwy Mary Lincoln (Molly to her beloved), Sally Field plays inexorable emotionality to Abe’s modest stoicism. As her husband is too mandatorily stolid to express the sorrow he feels for the thousands of sons lost during his administration, Mary is the more outwardly bereaved that their own son Willie died three years earlier. It’s been speculated that Mary suffered from bipolar disorder, and her ailment is visualized emphatically in a single jarring edit; her inconsolable sadness is wiped away by a demented grin.
The nearly wordless rapport between Abe and his youngest son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), is perhaps the most affecting; it attests to the paternalism discernable in the President’s overall nature, towards his family, of course, but his people as well. One particularly striking tableau sits Lincoln in an Oval Office rocking chair with Tad on his lap. Like a baroque painting, father and child cuddle over a picture book as lustrous sunbeams from the window pierce the blackness and illuminate their intimacy. It’s an image worthy of art galleries and recalls the famous statue that stands in Richmond, Virginia to this day. Lincoln’s discordant relationship with his oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a would-be Yankee soldier, feels shoehorned and melodramatic in comparison.
Nevertheless, Day-Lewis gives a career-highlight performance. His eyes sunken, his shoulders heavy, his steps short, his voice high and courtly, the two-time Oscar winner channels the real man as best as historical records describe. But showing his figure in wistful silhouette from behind, Lincoln also memorializes a symbol, a mythic insignia of a struggle that still remains largely unfinished. In addition, Spielberg and Day-Lewis make the President a raconteur: he doesn’t really talk; he orates. His incipient thoughts seem to roll around his head like musket balls before flowing forth elegantly. Besides one hilariously aggravated cabinet member, who’s had enough of Abe’s speechifying, the whole world takes pause to listen. Day-Lewis’ performance speaks to Lincoln’s wisdom, melancholy, sense of humor, and larger than life aura.
Actually, the whole stock of characters is fantastic. Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Stuhlberg has a significant role as an ambivalent congressman trembling before his cohorts. Speaking for the South in a tense but mannered confrontation between belligerents (a more civilized assemblage than wartime Congress, I must say), Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) imparts succinctly and stately the Southern cause: not racism, not enslavement, but preserving a way of life, a culture (few Confederate soldiers actually owned slaves). Lincoln’s strongest ally in the House is club-footed abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), whose principled aggression is public from the podium, but the extent of whose dedication is only revealed to us behind closed doors.
Beautifully shot by Janusz Kamiński in nuanced close-ups and vivid period imagery, underlined by John Williams’ courageous marching-song score (reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan) and Tony Kushner’s dialogue cribbed in spirit from Civil War letters and diaries, Lincoln is a great film. Although Spielberg’s movies are often so maudlin they appear filmed through a pane of sugar glass, his latest is an epic achievement that’s vastly expressive through images while celebrating the might and endurance of the spoken word as well. It was said of the President on his deathbed, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Though he’s long been quiet, Lincoln insinuates that somehow he teaches us still.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
Flight takes off with the most harrowing sequence in popular cinema all year. At 35,000 feet, a commercial airliner carrying ninety-five passengers and five crewmembers falls out of the sky over rural Georgia. Plummeting headfirst at an escalating velocity, the cabin echoes with panicked cries. In the cockpit, the crew races to assess the problem before it’s too late. Like a flaming meteor, the aircraft barrels uncontrollably toward the ground.
The intensity is so palpable viewers will want to buckle up in their cozy theater chairs. In a last-gasp decision, the pilot takes manual control and pulls an audacious and unorthodox maneuver: He flips the enormous jet upside down in a desperate attempt to slow its runaway descent. The plane tranquilly soars completely inverted for several minutes, before gracefully rotating around, leveling off, and crash-landing miraculously in an open field.
Behind the wheel is Capt. William “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a respected airline vet and former Navy pilot. Hours after the accident, as the injured man recuperates in a hospital bed, a media circus is already converging, ready to proclaim the next national hero. Although Whip’s clearly wary of the attention (fleeing to a secluded family farm as soon as he can), the spotlight, as any celebrity knows, tends to illuminate the truth, regardless of how well it’s hidden.
Directed by legendary filmmaker Robert Zemeckis (his first live-action film since Cast Away), Flight is an absorbingly taut and poignant excursion into one man’s tormented mental airspace. In the wake of stardom, Whip struggles to overcome his demons, now that they’ve unexpectedly come to the fore. After a toxicology report reveals both alcohol and drugs in Whip’s system at the time of the crash, he faces a different sort of plunge altogether—a full-on drunken bender.
But Whip’s not merely a drinker. He’s a raging alcoholic, as dependent on booze as oxygen. In spite of his inebriation, he’s still a fantastic pilot, based on an impossible mid-air recovery that saved dozens of lives. When it comes to criminal charges, however, will that even figure? Six passengers were killed. The people require a scapegoat. If he can sober up before a hearing with the NTSB, he might avoid culpability and prison time. If he can sober up, that is.
To Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins, the crash is more than just Whip’s jarring wake-up call. It’s a symbol—a beautiful conceit designed to weigh and clarify his negotiation of two completely different but equally unmanageable downward spirals.
As we’ll learn, Whip’s problems with substance abuse go back to his fractured marriage, where they destroyed his home-life. Rueful over past mistakes, Whip self-medicates exorbitantly, and Washington, in a performance worthy of nominations, plays the character with charismatic aplomb, in addition to staggering frailty and obstinate self-destructiveness. He’s killing himself. He’s just too cool to care.
To provide a reflective counterpart, there’s Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a Georgia-peaches accented beauty that narrowly escapes her own close call with heroin. Meeting over cigarettes in a hospital staircase, she and Whip become like AA sponsors that sleep together. Although she never emerges as a rounded character in her own right, Nicole’s desire to get clean has the contradictive effect of highlighting Whip’s unwillingness to acknowledge his own decaying existence.
While a union litigator (Don Cheadle) sagaciously endeavors to nullify the drug screening—partly by getting “An Act of God” accepted as a possible cause of the accident—Whip does his own existential soul searching.
Speaking of, there’s a strong spiritual undercurrent pervading the story. The first responders to the burning wreck are a church group mid-baptism, adorned in white robes. Shot with quiet, angelic serenity, that scene’s ethereal form ostensibly conveys Whip’s concussed disorientation, but further insinuates a saving divinity. Yet, the script has little, if anything, to say about religion besides “God’s ubiquity” and other platitudes. Flight is best when it stays grounded, assaying Whip on his arduous crawl from the abyss.
In Melancholia, a looming interplanetary disaster made an ingenious metaphor for depression. Similarly, Flight perceptively juxtaposes two catastrophic nose-dives, each handled by an individual who’s by turns in control and completely out of it. If Zemeckis’ gripping morality tale has its comedic moments (John Goodman’s far-out coke dealer is a hoot), it depicts alcoholism largely with an urgent sobriety and sepulchral gravitas.
In the tradition of The Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas, Flight pinpoints exactly what addiction takes from us. It steals our loved ones, our lives, and most costly, our sense of identity and spiritual equilibrium. Addiction spins us upside down until we’re completely unrecognizable to ourselves, like an inverted commercial jet. This wise and troubling film argues that, on some level, they’re equally difficult to turn back around.
Tuesday, November 6, 2012
Here Comes The Boom is the best movie comedian Kevin James has ever made. Hardly lavish praise, I know, but in previous adventures, like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, we chortled at lovable losers playing hero. In Here Comes The Boom, no pretense is necessary. As a teacher competing in UFC cage brawls to save his school’s music program, James proves a surprisingly valiant punching bag. And although this amiable underdog comedy supplies the requisite jabs, comical and otherwise, we’re not inspired to jeer at their recipient, but cheer for him instead.
Introduced as a one-time Teacher of the Year who has since grown disheartened, James’ Scott Voss is a tardy, unshaven sad sack sleeping through life; his Biology students waste away the period on their cell phones while he fecklessly hits on the sexy nurse (Selma Hayek). Across the hall, Marty the music teacher (Henry Winkler) is passionately conducting symphonies and reciting zestful aphorisms: “Without music, life is meaningless.” When budget cuts are cruelly dished out, it’s no surprise Marty gets the axe. They’re not going to cut Biology!
Even if director Frank Coraci isn’t exactly equipped to go toe-to-toe with today’s public school crisis, the movie still calls attention to its failing bureaucracy with unexpected lucidity. For a slapstick sports charmer starring the fat guy from Grown Ups, Boom profoundly, if reductively, blows the whistle on a grave injustice where tenured sloths and laid-off enthusiasts combine to shortchange eager students. As king of the sloths, Scott will have to take some hard knocks on his way to redemption.
With Marty in his corner holding the spit bucket, and a brawny Dutch trainer (Bas Rutten) screaming instructions ringside, Scott climbs into the Octagon; the prize money should be enough to cover his co-worker’s salary (you get paid even if you lose). At first, the pudgy gladiator survives only on his ability to withstand ferocious beatings, but his improvement as a fighter dovetails nicely with his improvement as a teacher, and, ultimately, as a man. Scott’s arch from complacency to action could symbolize the exigent rejuvenation of American schools.
Pinned down by excisable subplots, the story is somewhat scattered, and the matches themselves are engrossing if cartoonish—patty-cake next to last year’s Warrior. Regardless, Here Comes The Boom is optimistic about institutional as well as personal change; it lets James (who co-wrote) shed his jester persona and bring forth his inner white knight. In the inevitable championship bout, with Neil Diamond’s “Holly Holy” marking his epic entrance, we know that Scott, his students cheering, has somehow already won. And Kevin James, in his strongest role to date, shares that victory.
Friday, November 2, 2012
A surprising many of America’s great teen movies are nostalgic pieces. The two greatest, arguably, are American Graffiti and Dazed And Confused, both lively remembrances unctuously devoted to the minutia of their respective milieus. But in resurrecting bygone eras—the early 1960’s and mid 1970’s—those two movies presented more than merely time-capsule fashions (hotrods and The Beach Boys; bellbottoms and Black Sabbath). They expressed, and continue to express, the universal themes of growing up. When executed with honesty and keen perception, a teen film has the ability to transcend time and place, conveying not only the small transitory window of its singular characters and setting, but moreover, the entire temporal and geographical spectrum of human adolescent experience.
Like those other films, The Perks of Being a Wallflower qualifies as a period piece. (It takes place in the 90’s!) Also like them, it has sequences that are timelessly identifiable, with characters that are never clichés, don’t fit into tidy high-school-movie stereotypes, and emerge as recognizable human beings in familiar situations. Directed by first-timer Stephan Chbosky (based on his bestseller), Perks isn’t perfect, however. It’s by turns truthful and absurd, relatable and curiously preternatural. In the final act, the story trails off into a kind of outrageous psycho-dramatic nightmare. For the most part, though, the creators deeply understand their subjects: the childish insecurities and the intense yearning for love and acceptance.
The coming-of-age drama focuses on Charlie, a 14-year-old freshman at a Pittsburgh high school. Shy, forlorn, and socially guileless, Charlie is played by newcomer Logan Lerman with lachrymose vulnerability, evident in the way he wanders the hallways and classrooms of his campus like a lost lamb, too withdrawn, bemused, and self-conscious to muster so much as a whimper around his peers. Charlie is treading water at school, less a small fish in a big pond than a guppy in an ocean teeming with great whites, and they smell blood. Related in voice over, the amateur scribe drafts faux-correspondences with a non-existent pen pal he calls “friend”. The sporadic confessions grant us unlimited access to his soul, as he lays bare shards of his tender heart with every punch of a typewriter key.
Charlie desperately wants to fit in, and although he develops a kinship with his English teacher (Paul Rudd), he has little luck with the student body. Eventually, Charlie connects with Patrick (Ezra Miller), a histrionic goofball sitting alone at a football game. Once welcomed into Patrick’s offbeat clique of upperclassmen, Charlie meets the plain-Jane Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman)—who he dates briefly, but only because he’s too polite to break up with her—and the beautiful Sam, a fetching free spirit played by a never-lovelier Emma Watson. We’re introduced to her just as Charlie is, in a glowing close-up that recalls memories of the celestial perfection reserved for a person’s first sight of first love.
That shot stands out in a film that offers a handful of candid frissons. So too does a hookup scene between Charlie and Mary Elizabeth, wherein his timid nature, disinterest, and inexperience combine to make sensible the shivery awkwardness of unrequited affection.
As the school year passes by, the kids reveal themselves to us gradually, like a deliberately built up rock anthem. Sam’s desire to share music with her friends (remember mixed tapes?) symbolizes her boundlessly generous spirit. From his uncanny Dr. Frank-N-Furter send-ups at midnight screenings of Rocky Horror, Patrick proves himself publicly jocular and confident, but privately dejected, heartbroken by his secret lover’s refusal to acknowledge their relationship. Charlie emits a quietly ruminative air, by which he observes his surroundings, displaying the artistic altruism of Hemingway or Salinger. By beckoning us into its circle of wallflowers, the film lets us empathize with and embrace them in an astoundingly humanistic manner, illuminating their imperfections for the purpose of affording them vibrantly realistic identities.
The performances emphasize that plucked-from-the-hallways veracity. Lerman makes Charlie achingly sympathetic and sincere. The gifted Miller, so nefarious as a killer in We Need To Talk About Kevin, here belies that cartoonish wrath with an ironic self-assurance that veils Patrick’s scars. Maturing with every role, English actress Emma Watson not only poses ably for a Pennsylvanian—she embodies a mythic object of male teenage infatuation with such elegance that it’s easy to overlook how she’s deconstructing it. Sam, anguishing in regrets and buried memories, is too substantive to be a simple ideal, and Watson plays her with an alluring mysteriousness informed by the actress’s solid comprehension of her character’s unspoken traumas.
Admittedly, Watson is too gorgeous to pass as an unpopular misfit, but that’s hardly the most unconvincing aspect of the movie. Adapted by Chbosky himself, the script tends toward unnecessary overkill. Some of the students display malevolence more typical of prison inmates. I mean: Do we really need that wretched girl in Charlie’s class who constantly calls him a fag? In a drunken avowal, Charlie confides to Sam that his best friend committed suicide over the summer. If that alarming tidbit seems over-the-top, just wait for the climactic twist. In short, it’s too exorbitantly dark and too heavily obscured in hazy psychology to enrich the film in any profound way. At that point, I could no longer relate. I could no longer say, “Hey, we’ve all been there.” Because I haven’t, thank God.
Even if Perks veers perilously close to shock-value mendacity, it’s still the best film of its genre since An Education. Chbosky’s adaptation elucidates the convalescing power of human connection and empathy. Charlie is so introverted because he’s essentially his own best friend. Locked precariously inside his own consciousness, he associates, per his writing, only with his reflection, like light bouncing between mirrors. When Sam and Patrick graciously offer their friendship, Charlie is finally able to arise from his prison, join the world, and live his life. Standing in the flatbed of a pickup truck, cruising through a tunnel as David Bowie’s “Heroes” blasts from the stereo, he proclaims, “In this moment, we are infinite.” To be young and alive is to experience the moment like it’s everlasting.
Wednesday, October 24, 2012
History has a way of finding an audience through pop-culture. The true story of Argo, wherein six American diplomats were smuggled out of hostile Iran by the CIA disguised as a Canadian film crew, was declassified seventeen years after it occurred, though I’m sure many Americans even today aren’t aware of the operation’s existence. Actor-turned-director Ben Affleck has successfully publicized the incident in the most extensive and enticing manner available to him: He made a Hollywood movie about it.
The feature film, which stars Affleck as the mastermind and operative behind the ruse, dramatizes these bizarre historical facts with an uneven proportion of veneration and fabrication, touches of levity, and a few incisive jabs at cinema’s inherent fakery. The strongest section of the film, when Affleck’s character goes to Burbank to do pre-production on a pretend sci-fi yarn called Argo, is, witting to the director or not, a pointed examination of how Hollywood turns history into artifice, into consumer escapism.
By the end, however, Affleck diverts from such candor, and recreates the final steps of the rescue with the nervous intensity, yet also the precise narrative tricks and empty gestures of the blockbusters he’s supposedly deriding. It’s tempting to give Affleck too much credit, and posit that the finale’s machinations further his thematic critique, showing a progression from realism to sensationalism. However, I can hardly bring myself to grant amnesty to the man who blighted the world with Gigli and Reindeer Games. I’m half kidding, of course.
Argo opens with the attack on the American Embassy in the Iranian capital on November 4, 1979. The context of that fateful day is cleverly setup in a prologue using storyboards and photographs. As the inhabitants of the building watch solicitously through the windows of their stronghold, an ocean of protestors roar outside the gates before scaling the fortress walls. The trapped employees act pragmatically, burning and shredding important documents, calling for extra security, though none arrives. Before long, the mob have taken the Americans hostage, blindfolded them, and turned their sanctuary into their prison. Affleck stages the reenactment scrupulously and artfully, using nary a note of musical accompaniment, as he allows the terrifying immediacy of the situation to speak for itself.
Back home, Americans are livid. The film utilizes archival footage of spontaneous assaults on Iranians to illustrate the vengeful backlash the crisis engendered in the American people, evoking memories of more recent anti-Arab sentiment. Fortunately, six diplomats managed to escape the embassy during the coup and have found solace at the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). The Iranian rebels, employing children in the painstaking task of reassembling the shredded files, will soon discover that six Americans have evaded capture and are hiding out in Tehran.
Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA specialist in “exfiltration”—the art of organizing escapes from enemy territory. In the lead, Affleck goes for affected understatement, but comes off flat, unreadable, and mirthless, his defining characteristics being his beard and shaggy do. Plus, there’s a perfunctory subplot about Mendez’ troubled home life, involving spousal upheaval and a child he only speaks to over the telephone. The film labors to make the family drama an essential part of its meager characterization only to highlight its lack of depth and pertinence.
The aside does serve one important purpose: A call home to his son and a disunited viewing of Planet Of The Apes inspires Mendez’ outlandish stratagem. He proposes that the CIA fund a fake movie that would require shooting locations ideal for Iran’s terrain and climate. Next, they’ll receive phony Canadian passports and identities for the stranded diplomats, assign each a position in the crew, and then Mendez, as “producer”, will fly them all out of Iran himself. It’s a gamble, but in a CIA pitch session where the only other suggestion is escape on bicycles, Mendez delivers the “best bad idea” in the room—one that just might be crazy enough to work. For legitimacy, they’ll need a script, storyboards, shot lists, and advertising.
With the services of producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and Oscar winning effects artist John Chambers (John Goodman), Argo emerges as a fake movie with very real consequences. The two showbiz vets, on top of lending the film some invaluable moments of trenchant humor, best epitomize Hollywood as a Mecca of deceit, and the movie observantly intimates that only there, in a dreamland of surface razzle-dazzle, could such a huge lie really be brought off with enough conviction to fool anybody. Transforming actors into preposterous creations, Chambers trades in deception, and Siegel, his corporate counterpart, is head to leagues of charlatans and sharks.
It’s revealing that Affleck truncates the subject matter’s satirical potential in favor of a pulse pounding—and far less resonant—final act. Mendez travels east to rendezvous with the clandestine fugitives (Rory Cochrane, Scoot McNairy, Kerry Bishe, Tate Donovan, Clea Duvall, and Christopher Denham), and the movie marches on as straightforwardly as any genre potboiler. The conclusion is foregone, surely, but with every turn of the screw, the director’s studied workmanship increases in transparency (a vital phone call is answered at the last possible moment; the Iranian rebels are either supernaturally perceptive or risibly dimwitted and disorganized, depending entirely on how it will serve Affleck’s suspense schema).
In his auspicious debut, Gone Baby Gone, Affleck showed signs of Scorsese’s streetwise grit and Eastwood’s moral opacity. Argo is thrilling but squandered, an historical recreation that promises cinematic self-reflexivity, but climaxes with the calculated gratification of a Ron Howard crowd-pleaser instead. The director's worthwhile treatise on Hollywood’s garnishing of reality becomes his own final exam in the methods of that very same commercialized illusionism. The film ends with shots of movie merchandise: Do they reflect on our own consumption of synthetic historiography, or do they advertise Argo action figures? In Stores Now.