Thursday, July 29, 2010

Magic is Cool

Film: The Prestige
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop

Magic is cool. I say this knowing that there are people who disagree, but they’re also wrong. Magic is cool. I’m not such a huge fan of the giant stage illusions—the big tricks that take 20 minutes to set up for a couple of seconds of wow factor. But a good magic trick is something special. For me, the fun is in trying to figure out the secret of how the trick is really done.

The Prestige is all about magic, and the magic of magic. A period piece, the film occurs in the late 19th century or the early 20th. Two up-and-coming magicians work behind the scenes for another magician named Milton (Ricky Jay, who is an impressive magician in his own right). The assistants are named Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale). Both are learning the trade of stagecraft and illusion, and Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) works as Milton’s assistant.

We learn almost immediately, in fact before we know about Milton, that Borden has presumably killed Angier over some long-running feud. He is in prison and awaiting trial when he is made an interesting offer. In exchange for the secrets to all of his tricks, including the one that made him famous, The Transported Man, his daughter will be taken care of instead of relegated to a workhouse and a terrible life.

We then get the story. Angier and Borden want Milton to do more with his act. In the course of this, Borden ties Julia’s hands too tightly, and she is unable to escape from a water tank. Julia drowns, and the feud between the two men begins. Angier wants to know what knot Borden tied, but Borden refuses to tell him, claiming not to know. Milton is ruined because of the accident, as is the man who creates his tricks, Cutter (Michael Caine).

Borden and Angier start their own acts, and proceed to do everything they can to ruin each other’s success. Angier contracts Cutter to work with him, and comes up with a startling new way to do an old trick. Borden destroys the trick on stage, ruining Angier’s run. Borden attempts the trick of catching a bullet, but makes the mistake of calling Angier on stage, who proceeds to shoot off two of his fingers.

Things get nastier when their women get in the middle of the conflict. On Borden’s side, it is his wife, Sarah (Rebecca Hall). For Angier, it is his new assistant and love interest, Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johansson). Angier sends his assistant to work for Borden, hoping to steal the secret of his new trick, The Transported Man. Sarah, meanwhile, is convinced that her husband has fallen for this new girl and loves her only part of the time, loving both Olivia and his magic and secrets more.

All of this comes from that one trick. In it, Borden bounces a red rubber ball across the stage, then steps into a box on one end of the stage. Then, just as the ball reaches the far end of the stage, he emerges from a second box and catches the ball. Angier becomes obsessed with the trick, hoping to steal the secret, convinced that it must be more complicated than the double that Cutter tells him it is. In fact, Angier does perform the trick with a double for awhile until Borden destroys his reputation once again.

Ultimately, he gets hold of Borden’s diary and decodes it, believing that the key lies in a machine built for Borden by the scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie). Tesla agrees to help Angier decides to fund Tesla’s work, working through his intermediary, Alley (Andy Serkis). And we are thus lead back to the beginning with the death of Angier, as he performs the newest version of this same trick, and drowning in front of his greatest rival.

The actual plot here is really a lot more complicated than all of this. In fact, it’s the sort of film that requires a couple of thousand words to go through all of the various twists and turns the plot takes. In that respect, it’s pretty impressive. This film trades on its difficulty, demanding that the audience pay close attention to it at every moment. Miss a minute, miss the movie. And while I respect this, my disappointment in it is palpable, and best covered in a spoiler.


What we discover is two-fold. First, Angier’s trick really is a form of magic. Standing under Tesla’s giant device doesn’t teleport him, but produces an exact duplicate of himself elsewhere, a specific distance away. What this means is that every night, the man in the machine gets dropped into a water tank and is drowned—essentially, one version of Angier dies with each performance. Simultaneously, we discover that Borden’s trick is accomplished by virtue of his identical twin. This twin goes around disguised as Fallon, the man who makes the tricks. In fact, the two of them frequently switch places, spending a day as one personality or the other.

Okay. So I can, for the sake of the movie, buy into the idea that Tesla’s machine makes a clone. But why then is he so surprised to fall into the tank every night? He should know what’s coming. Second, all of Borden’s personal problems stem from the fact that he and his twin switch places every day or so—Sarah ends up killing herself because it was the wrong twin, the twin who didn’t love her, playing the role that night. Even if I accept the whole identical twin thing, who would consent to live that much of a charade? One twin could take the role of Fallon, undisguising himself only for the trick reveal. It sure as hell would have made their lives a lot less complicated.


Ultimately, the problem I have with The Prestige is not that it is unbelievable, but that the parts that are supposed to be believable don’t pass the sniff test. It’s certainly an inventive movie and the plot is complicated and intriguing. However, the characters act in ways that no people would act in that situation. For that, it’s a disappointment.

Why to watch The Prestige: A complicated, difficult plot.
Why not to watch: The resolution, after a couple of minutes of thought, is ludicrous.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Racist Cinema

Film: The Birth of a Nation
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop

There comes a time when one must be willing to separate the art from the subject matter or the art from the artist. It happens, for instance, every time I watch a movie directed by Roman Polanski. Roman Polanski, the alleged statutory rapist must be separated from Roman Polanski, the great filmmaker of Chinatown and Repulsion. It also happens with D. W. Griffith’s first great masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation.

For me, there is no other possible way to watch this film, which is more or less a paean to the glorious days of the South when the lifestyle was fabulous for anyone white. The film yearns for those halcyon days of yore when the rich, white, benevolent plantation owners held sway, and even their slaves were happy in their servitude. Obviously, the connection here to reality is pretty tenuous at best.

And yet, that’s the film we’re given here. The South is praised in all things—the bucolic lifestyle, the traditions, the glory of the plantation system. Northerners in general are shown as slipshod, nasty, and petty while the men of the South are all gallant and noble and the women are all beautiful. Nothing here is more glorious than the flag of the Confederacy, which is covered in glory with each victory for the gallant, brave troops. Abolitionists are no better than…well, whatever you can think of (although Lincoln is thought of pretty well throughout).

And it gets worse. Since the film is based on a book called “The Clansmen,” it should come as no surprise that once the South loses that War of Northern Aggression, all hell really breaks loose in dear old Dixie. See, those terrible, terrible former slaves shouldn’t have really wanted their freedom, because all they’re really going to do is attempt to ravage the pure white women with their terrible, terrible jungle fury. Who can step in to save the day? The Klan, naturally.

Yes, the Klan. In Griffith’s masterpiece, the Klan are the good guys who seek only to avenge the terrible wrongs done to the South when those damned Yankees fought them for wanting to create their own country and for leaving the white population poor and helpless against all those rapacious black folk. It all feels so backwards—it did generally at the time it was made for many, although the film was a hit. But in this day and age, the morality of this film, the overall tenor of it feels so completely backwards and horrifying that the film is often difficult to watch. Anyone not lilywhite is nothing but a terrible, rampaging brute, little more than an animal, as are the white Northern soldiers who lead “Negro” regiments. In a battle early in the film, such a regiment destroys the town of some of the film’s main characters—looting and pillaging, destroying wantonly until the noble Confederacy rides into town to save the day and send those bad, bad men a’runnin’. In one title card, Griffith goes so far as to call the disenfranchisement of non-whites the Southerners’ “Aryan birthright.”

And so, The Birth of a Nation is unquestionably racist in the extreme. Griffith’s title cards throughout want to claim very much that the film is anti-war, and there are certainly sequences (the death of two friends, one a Confederate, the other a Yankee dying together on the battlefield, for example) drive home that point. But the real thrust of the film is that before the American Civil War, the plantation owners and Southern whites were benevolent rulers who held sway over their childlike slaves as a form of kindness. Without this oversight, says the film, the slaves would quickly destroy the land, lord their superior numbers over the white population, and continually exact revenge as well as release their rampant sexual desires for irresistible and pure white women.

Thus, the film must be separated from the art. The film itself, the actual plot and story, the characters and characterizations, the mood, and everything about it is completely reprehensible, particularly from a modern point of view. It is almost (not quite) but almost akin to blaming the Holocaust on the Jewish population of Europe. In this respect, The Birth of a Nation is a hateful, terrible film impossible to view dispassionately.

However, on the artistic side, beyond the story and the inherent racism of the film, it remains that Griffith was a master technician and a true innovator of the cinematic form. Scenes are filmed with a red filter to depict blazes around cities. He was one of the first, if not the first, to use a tracking camera for some shots. Griffith managed to blend documentary features (like the assassination of Lincoln) with a fictional narrative. He used close-up camera work to great effect.

Thus, on the level of historical importance to the growth of the film medium, there are few movies that wield this kind of impact. Griffith effectively created the film medium with this film in profound and significant ways. The film is still being studied for its effect on virtually everything that came after it.

So it’s art. Is it bad art or is it great art? That point is where people are still splitting the dog. Ultimately, which is more important—the invention and use of new and influential techniques in the cinematic medium or the reprehensible, vicious, and racist story it tells? It puts the viewer in the unique position of either denigrating one of the greatest technical achievements in early film or praising something about as politically correct as Mein Kampf.

So where do I fall? It is a great film. It’s an unpleasant, nasty film. It’s a film that will irritate and offend anyone who isn’t a skinhead. But regardless of this, its technical achievements mark it as a film that truly is worthy of study. It’s worth noting, though, that silent dramas are extremely tedious to watch (for me), and this one runs more than three hours.

Why to watch The Birth of a Nation: The most influential film for the first 30+ years of cinematic undertakings.
Why not to watch: Naked, ugly racism from stem to stern.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Judy, Judy, Judy

Film: A Star is Born
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop

Ah, Judy Garland. It is the stock in trade of the entertainment business that such stories happen more than we may like. A person with enormous talent is, in the end, destroyed by that very talent that made him or her a star. This is a theme we will revisit when I watch La Vie en Rose about the life of Edith Piaf. But this is not the film of the day, which is a musical in a very different tradition from the norm. How fitting that the story is one that matches the life of its star in many ways.

A Star is Born features Judy Garland as the supremely unfortunately named Esther Blodgett (changed in the film to Vicki Lester). She’s a talent, as revealed in the first few minutes of the film in a performance on stage at a Hollywood benefit. Her act is nearly destroyed by the drunken entrance of a fading star named Norman Maine (James Mason), but Esther manages to turn this into an entrance that gets him an ovation.

Maine, once a matinee idol, is now a drunken has-been of the (name your own favorite drunken has-been) variety. After Esther saves his bacon, he realizes that his drinking is a problem and he needs to do something about it. He recognizes that Esther has talent and promises her a career in the movies, but loses her address, number and any way to contact her. Esther, having quit her act, is forced to take menial jobs to support herself, singing in commercials when she gets the chance. Much of this (and other parts) is shown in a sepia-toned montage that is surprisingly effective.

It’s in one of these commercials that Norman Maine hears that angelic voice once again, and tracks her down. He convinces his friend Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) to give her a small role in a film. This changes once Niles hears her sing, and she gets a major role in a musical, which proves to be a whopping success, making her a bona fide star. She marries Maine in celebration.

But this is when tragedy strikes. She wins an Oscar, and a drunken Maine barrels up on stage, speaks wildly, and mistakenly slaps Esther (now Vicki) across the face. Realizing he has a problem, he checks himself into a drunk tank and sweats it out, but hops off the wagon when his former agent (Jack Libby) rides him for surviving on Vicki’s talent. What happens next is best left to spoilers.


Vicki tells Oliver that she will give up her career to nurse Norman back to health. He overhears the conversation and, realizing that giving up her stage life will kill her emotionally, he walks out into the ocean and drowns himself. Vicki is naturally despondent, but is convinced to return to show business when told that she is wasting the career that Norman died to save. At a gala benefit, not unlike the start of the movie, she introduces herself as “Mrs. Norman Maine” to wild applause.


One of the problems I tend to have with musicals is that they are so ready to push the happy ending on everybody that they strain the limits of believability and reality. A Star is Born does not do that at all. Instead, we get a real story that happens to have musical numbers in it that don’t do the whole “break with reality” thing so common and frustrating in many other musicals. What we get here instead is tragedy, reality, pain, and the angelic voice of Judy Garland.

Frequent readers are probably already tired of my complaining about my distaste for musicals, but it’s a distaste that’s at least honest. A Star is Born doesn’t rank in that list of films I dislike, because it holds together as a story and because the production numbers all make sense in the grand scheme of the film. I liked All That Jazz for the same reason. The musicals I dislike fail for me because they want me to buy into a world that I don’t believe in—a world where people break out into song and perfect choreography—or a world I don’t care about—where everyone is talented, on stage, sassy, and lives happily ever after.

A Star is Born works because the musical numbers, which are the real selling point of any musical, are secondary to the workings of Norman Maine and Esther/Vicki. It doesn’t hurt that I love James Mason (especially as a villain), and it doesn’t hurt that Judy Garland could sing anything handed to her and make it her own.

Is it too long? Probably. The big musical numbers really are big. “Born in a Trunk” goes on for what feels like the first half of the film. This isn’t to say it’s not worth watching, but it is the Energizer Bunny of musical numbers, and thankfully leads into the intermission. At roughly three hours running time, there’s a few places that might stand a trim. However, at that length, there isn’t a ton of fat here, particularly with the sepia montages. As per my penchant, I’d cut from the musical numbers.

Why to watch A Star is Born: Judy Garland at her best.
Why not to watch: This is not a happy musical.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Christ Tangential

Film: Ben-Hur, Life of Brian
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library (Ben-Hur), DVD from personal collection (Brian), both on big ol’ television

If you’re going to tell a story, you may as well tell a big story, and if you can tie it in to an even bigger story, so much the better. The typical Bible epic focuses on the lives of the people in the Bible, either Old Testament or New. There are a few other films that attempt to do the whole “sword and sandals” thing without much of the sword, and without much of the Jesus. As a case in point, we have Ben-Hur and Life of Brian.

Ben-Hur, of course, takes this story and itself quite seriously. The winner of the highest percentage of Academy Awards in history (it won 11 out of the 12 handed out that year), it is perhaps more than any other film objectively great. It tells the story of a wealthy Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his life, which runs tangentially to that of Jesus Christ. In fact, the film opens with the birth of Christ, despite the fact that Jesus is, at best, a tertiary character here, and the actor who portrayed him, Claude Heater in his only film role, never shows his face and is uncredited.

At the beginning of the story, we are introduced to Messala (Stephen Boyd), the new tribune for the Jerusalem garrison. It turns out that he grew up in the area and always dreamed of running this outpost. He is quickly greeted by his old childhood friend, Judah Ben-Hur. However, this reunion soon turns sour. Judah wishes for freedom for his people, and balks when Messala asks him to help him destroyed the Jewish rebellion. This causes no end of trouble between the two. When a loose roof tile slides off Judah’s house, hitting the new governor, Judah is accused of attempted assassination and handed over to the slave galleys while his mother and sister are imprisoned, eventually becoming lepers. We get in the scene of Judah’s sentence, the essence of Messala, who tells Judah that he is condemning him simply because people knew they were friends. If he’s that quick to pass sentence on a friend, the people will fear him.

On the march to his new ship home, Judah is refused water until a mysterious stranger (obviously Jesus, even from the back) helps him. Once on the ship, he survives by hating the Romans. In a crucial battle, he saves the life of the Roman commander, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who eventually befriends him and adopts him as a son and Roman citizen.

However, Judah wants revenge on Messala and journies back to Jerusalem. Along the way, he encounters one of the original three wise men, Balthazar (Finaly Currie) and an Arab sheik named Ilderim (Hugh Griffith). Judah agrees to race Ilderim’s chariot in the grand arena against Messala.

This is the real culmination of the film for me. The chariot race is truly something special, and despite the fact that this movie is a good 50 years old, this scene still holds up as one of the greatest ever filmed. The action is intense, particularly between Messala and Judah. Judah, of course, wins the race, and Messala is badly wounded when his chariot wheel flies off and he is trampled under the feet of another team. He dies of these wounds, but not before telling Judah of the fate of his mother and sister, now plagued with leprosy.

After this, the movie becomes quite a bit more moralistic, and dovetails back with the story of Christ. For my money, the film could have ended shortly after the chariot race, but what do I know?

Life of Brian is the second film from the Monty Python team, a comedy group I almost literally grew up with. I’m a huge Python fan—I had a dog named Monty Python, and another named Basil Fawlty. Again, this movie runs parallel to the life of Christ, and is the tale of Brian (Graham Chapman), the baby born in the manger next to Jesus. Brian’s life parallels that of Christ in many ways, including his becoming a prophet and martyrdom on the cross.

The film, which should come as no surprise from anyone even vaguely familiar with the Python team, is a long gag. Brian finds himself in a variety of dangerous situations, all caused by drastic misunderstandings of the people around him. His mother (Terry Jones, also the director and team member) is constantly annoyed with him, and tells him that his father is a Roman named Naughtius Maximus, who raped her, at least at first.

Brian falls for Judith (Sue Jones-Davies), who is a member of the People’s Front of Judea, a radical organization that wishes to overthrow Roman rule, provided they can get anything out of committee. Asked to write “Romans go home” on the palace wall, Brian is caught, given a grammar lecture by a guard (John Cleese), and forced to paint the phrase on the wall 100 times. This, of course, gets him pursued further, causes him to get a ride on a spaceship, be captured, imprisoned by Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin), who has a terrible speech impediment, escape, become a reluctant prophet and messiah, be recaptured, and eventually crucified.

The entire Python team—Chapman, Cleese, Palin, Jones, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam (a hell of a director in his own right)—play numerous roles throughout the film, while Python regular Carol Cleveland has just a few bit roles.

There are things missing from this film in a big way. I love Gilliam’s weird little animation sequences, and except for the titles and the completely gratuitous alien spaceship sequence, there is no animation here. Additionally, there is almost too much story here for the Pythons. The Quest for the Holy Grail has a semblance of a story, but it also goes off the rails time and time again, which is where most of the fun comes from. Brian does not—it sticks to its main theme, with the comedy coming from the characters rather than the incomplete sketches and bizarre segues from one thing to the next.

Sadly, I think Brian is the least of the Python films. It’s gutsy and ballsy (coming allegedly from an offhand comment from Eric Idle. When asked what the team’s next film would be, he answered, “Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory”) and ambitious. It’s these qualities that put it on this list, and also make it far less funny than the other Python films. They push it pretty hard. There’s a lot of language and gratuitous male and female frontal nudity, not to mention the mocking of religion, belief, Christianity, Judaism, and just about everything else.

Recently, an American named Kim “Howard” Johnson, who was a Python fan and flew himself to Tunisia to work on the film, published his notes and diary from his time working on the film. It’s a gushing, sometimes fawning account of his five weeks with the team, but it’s also worth a read for any Python fan. I enjoyed the book and I enjoy the movie, but it’s almost never the Python I choose to watch.

Why to watch Ben-Hur: A real epic of the original mode and, of course, the chariot race.
Why not to watch: After the chariots, it turns maudlin.

Why to watch Life of Brian: It’s a Monty Python film.
Why not to watch: Every other Monty Python film is better.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tricky Dick

Film: All the President’s Men
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television

I’ve made the comment before that it’s sometimes difficult for me to get into a movie based on reality if I know how the real story turned out. Apollo 13, for instance, was a pretty good film, but I knew going in that everybody got back safely. To overcome this, a film really has to be something special. Fortunately, after last night’s debacle with Independence Day, All the President’s Men is really a tremendous movie.

Anyone my age or older, and quite a few people who are younger than I am, know the basics of the Watergate scandal. The first major political scandal that I have any recollection of, Watergate was the political downfall of Richard Nixon and many players from the Republican Party from the early 1970s. It’s also the source of the “–gate” suffix attached to virtually every political scandal for the last 40 years.

This film, based on the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, is not about the Watergate break in. What it is about is the investigation from the perspective of the two reporters. This is about breaking the story, tracking down the sources, and finding out as much information as possible to bring down the president and his cronies. They put together the pieces, dealing with shadowy meetings, and a wall of silence to uncover one of the biggest revealed cover-ups in American political history.

It’s difficult to know precisely how accurate this film portrayal is. It’s nice to see, however, that our two heroes, Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are not portrayed as Boy Scouts or as perfect. They have their problems and bad behaviors just like everyone else does, and in no small part, this is something that helps make the film work. Frequently, the two make guesses about things that they believe are right, and using those guesses, manage to trick information out of informants who categorically refuse to go on the record. Woodward claims to is possibly over cautious and paranoid. Bernstein chain smokes and takes chances.

Backing them up throughout are the brass at The Washington Post, specifically Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden), Howard Simons (Martin Balsam), and particularly Ben Bradless (Jason Robards). Woodward also gets a great deal of advice from a man known only as Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), who does not provide actual information, but confirms or denies hunches, and continues to tell the two reporters to pursue the money and follow the trail as far up as it goes.

We live in a day an age when newspapers have ceased to be the way that people get their news. The day and age of the great newspaper man—like Ben Bradlee—are probably gone forever. But there was a time when a reporter (or two) with a notebook, a telephone, and a lot of determination could bring down an entire government.

Honestly, it’s difficult to believe that a story like this could be as engrossing as this one is. There’s corruption and illegal activity throughout, but there’s plenty here to watch. This is a gripping story, with twists and turns. The biggest surprise is that this happens in a film without a single gunshot, death, or even afistfight.

My favorite part throughout is the understated ending. Rather than a big show as convictions roll in, we get nothing but the teletype machine showing us what happened. Brilliant.

Great performances, and a great story. They don’t get a lot better. The backlash of the Watergate scandal was a dark time in American history. Everyone should know this story, and this is a great way to hear it.

Why to watch All the President’s Men: A true story where David really beat Goliath.
Why not to watch: You should already know the ending.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Big, Dumb, and Flashy

Film: Independence Day
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television

Hollywood is known for a number of things. While certainly (as this list generally proves) there are movies that come from Tinseltown that are thoughtful, intelligent, challenging, and well-made, that’s not the most people’s first thought. Hollywood means big budget, lots of explosions and action, and the lowest common denominator.

Thus we have Independence Day, a film stupid enough that I had a hard time believing it didn’t come from the scaly, brimstone-scented hands of Michael Bay. In this film, gigantic alien spacecraft enter Earth’s atmosphere, blow up a significant number of cities, and then are finally destroyed by a triumphant human population that deals with its devastation with grit, determination, and massive logical inconsistencies.

Rather than go into the ins and outs of the film itself, I’d rather discuss the massive inconsistencies, bad logic, stupidity, and plot holes that are foisted on a public that deserves a lot better. Watch Independence Day and you will discover the following:

The assistant to the president of the United States (Bill Pullman as that president) keeps her private cell phone number listed in the phone book “in case of emergencies.” Because the American public is generally well-behaved enough that she wouldn’t be inundated with prank phone calls at all hours of the day.

The best way to destroy any major city is to plant your alien spacecraft over a recognizable landmark and fire. It doesn’t really matter if it is in the center of the city or not—as long as it’s something people would know, it’ll work.

When you are a fighter pilot like Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) and watch your best friend (Harry Connick, Jr.) killed in action by aliens, it doesn’t really matter. You can still celebrate as long as you destroy one alien spacecraft at the cost of your own plane.

A human being is capable of knocking out an alien wearing full body armor with a punch to the head.

Cars left in traffic will keep the keys on the driver’s side visor.

Entry into top secret government facilities by a horde of civilians can be achieved by driving up in a pickup truck with one alien body. This allows entry for everybody in the entire procession.

The American government is willing to risk the president’s life on a suicide mission.

Everyone in the world speaks English, and is equally inspired by a single speech from the president of the U.S.

Macintosh products, which at the time were rarely compatible with each other, are completely compatible with alien motherships.

Alien life forms never improve their technology. A ship that crash lands on Earth in the 1950s will be completely similar to one that attacks 45 years later. Essentially, this would be like someone landing a P-51B Mustang on a modern aircraft carrier and having no one notice.

A pilot who flies modern aircraft is capable of flying alien spacecraft as long as he sees it in combat. This is the equivalent of my saying that I can compete in NASCAR because I’ve watched part of a race on television. Additionally, anyone who has flown any aircraft at all at any time in the past can be trained in less than one day to fly a modern jet. How different can they be?

If your parent loses faith, keep a Bible/Torah/Quran/other scripture on your person at all time so that if something else happens, you can immediately rekindle that faith.

Ultimately, this is a movie that trades specifically and singularly on its special effects. The characters in the film are not so much characters as archetypes who fill specific roles and have no real personality other than a couple of quirks and a specific role to play. Bill Pullman is the president, so he is young, noble, good-looking, and courageous. His wife (Mary McDonnell) is smart, educated, well-dressed, and noble. The guy who works at the cable station (Jeff Goldblum) is hyper-intelligent, caring, and decent, and his father (Judd Hirsch) is equally caring, smart, and filled with the wisdom of every old Jewish guy ever. The scientist from Area 51 (Brent Spiner) is stereotypically goofy and lacking in social skills.

Independence Day is an insult to the intelligence of anyone older than 15 with a brain that works even mildly. I can only surmise that it’s on this list because of the special effects, which really are good, particularly the explosions during the start of the alien war. However, since the release of this film, a number of other movies have been released that not only have special effects as good or better, but that are also far better films, less insultingly stupid. I can’t see how this film can be justified on this list when something like Jason and the Argonauts is ignored. Even an oddball sci-fi film like Serenity has decent effects without making me feel like Hollywood thinks I’m a dumbass. How about Spider-Man 2?

This is a big, dumb movie, and it should have never come anywhere close to being on this list. I feel stupider for having watched it again.

Why to watch Independence Day: Special effects that are still pretty good, even more than a dozen years later.
Why not to watch: This movie believes you are really, really stupid.

Friday, July 16, 2010

And Justice for All

Film: Philadelphia
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television

Hollywood often gets a bug up its ass about one cause or another. Often, this results in a pretty good film, or even a great one. Films like Hotel Rwanda happen not because someone wanted to make a movie about Africa, but because there was a cause that needed to be brought to light to the rest of the world. The same is true for the film Philadelphia, which resulted in an Oscar win for Tom Hanks and one for Bruce Springsteen for best original song.

The story here is a pretty simple one, which tends to work well for cause movies, since it gives the audience an obvious good guy and an equally obvious bad guy. Andrew Beckett (Hanks) is an up-and-coming attorney with a powerful law firm in Philadelphia. The partners in the firm are consistently impressed with Beckett’s work, and give him charge over their most important client. What Beckett isn’t telling them is that a) he’s gay and b) he’s HIV-positive and suffering from AIDS.

Sadly, one of the partners has had experience with AIDS patients and knows what the signs of the disease look like. He spots a lesion on Beckett’s head, and before we can say “Andrew Beckett has AIDS,” he’s being sandbagged at work and his efforts are being sabotaged by co-workers, almost certainly with the tacit approval of the firm’s head, Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards).

This leads to Beckett losing his job. Convinced that he was fired not for incompetence but because he has AIDS, he recruits a lawyer one step above an ambulance chaser. This lawyer, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) initially doesn’t want the case, not because he thinks he can’t win, but because he dislikes homosexuals. Eventually, however, seeing Beckett struggling with the case and living through obvious discrimination, he decides to come on board and try the case.

That’s pretty much the whole story here. There are no big surprises. In fact, during the start of the trial, Miller comments that there will be no surprise witnesses and no tearful confessions on the witness stand, and there aren’t. We see Beckett’s struggle, watch the court proceedings and the skillful and half-truthful attacks from the defense attorney (Mary Steenburgen) and see Andrew’s struggles both with the damage done to his reputation and the damage done to his body by the disease. Along the way, Miller learns to respect this man who is dying in front of him, and to come to some level of acceptance with the gay community.

Any message movie, or cause movie, tends to be simplistic in terms of story because the goal is to get the message out rather than confuse the viewers. What’s worth mentioning here, though, is that Andrew Beckett is not portrayed as a saint or a perfect man. He certainly has his character flaws, missteps, and mistakes, all of which are brought out in the trial. It would be easy to make him someone so easy to like that we root for him. It’s more impressive to make him a flawed, human individual, and make us want to root for him anyway, and that’s what Hanks and Demme manage here.

There are also great performances. Hanks, naturally, is the one easiest to pour praise on, but there really isn’t a bad one. Denzel Washington gives one of his better performances here as the ambulance chaser-turned crusader, managing to convey a lot of tenderness in the second half of the film with a gesture or a look. Another good performance here is Antonio Banderas as Miguel, Beckett’s partner. It would be easy to look at Banderas’s career and expect him to do little but look pretty, but he too is real, and provides an excellent counterpoint to Hanks’s character. It’s a moving portrayal, and done beautifully.

I don’t generally like films that slam me over the head with a message, and Philadelphia could have easily been that movie. It isn’t, though. Instead, it is a movie first, and a message second, which makes the message all that more effective and penetrating.

Why to watch Philadelphia: A smart movie about a cause that still rankles.
Why not to watch: It’s not like you expect it to be happy, do you?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Doomed Love

Film: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, La Captive (The Captive)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop (both films).

With the wild, and to my mind unexplainable, success of Twilight, one might well ask when vampires became wimpy romantic pussies. It’s a fair question, really. Vampires were the stuff of nightmare and legend until what seems like 90% of the young female population decided that necrophilia was sexy. Certainly there has always been a romantic element to the vampire, a sense of doom and fatalism that seems to please the true romantic. The original pussified vampire usually gets placed firmly on the shoulders of Anne Rice and Interview with the Vampire. That may well be correct, but there’s certainly some indication in my mind that things started a little earlier, with Coppola’s version of the Dracula story.

Dracula, more commonly referred to as Bram Stoker’s Dracula is in many ways a classic retelling of the original Stoker tale with some significant additions. The film starts, for instance, with a telling of how the film version of Vlad the Impaler became a creature of the night. Historically, of course, Vlad Tepes was a monster who enjoyed, well, impaling people on pikes. Here, he starts as a great defender of the church, but when a false report of his death causes his love to kill herself and thus doom her soul for all eternity, he swears vengeance on God. He stabs the cross in the church, causing a flood of blood, which he then drinks, presumably turning him into a vampire.

From here, it switches to the more traditional narrative of the original story. A firm in London has been contacted by an obscure Count in Transylvania with a desire to purchase ten properties. The original agent sent to close the deal, Renfield (the awesome Tom Waits), went loopy and now resides in an insane asylum in London, where he obsesses over blood and eats insects. The company sends a new agent named Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) to close the deal. Because of the trip, Harker has to put his wedding plans on hold. His bride-to-be, Mina Murray (Winona Ryder before she went all kleptomaniacal) understands the importance of the trip, but is sad at having to wait for that sweet, sweet, Keanu lovin’. Harker arrives in the Carpathians to encounter Count Dracula (Gary Oldman).

At this point, you probably already know the story. Harker is trapped in Dracula’s castle while the Count leaves, forcing him to return to London while the game is already afoot. Mina, it turns out, is the image of the doomed and dead love from hundreds of years earlier. Dracula pursues Mina, and does so initially through her friend Lucy (Sadie Frost). Harker is assisted by several men who believe his story—predominantly Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), Dr. Jack Seward (Richard Grant), Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), and the American adventurer Quincey P. Morris (Bill Campbell).

All of these people are more fully entwined than it might at first appear. Holmwood, Seward, and Morris, for instance, are all greatly interested in Lucy, who ultimately decides on Lord Holmwood, which reduces Seward’s effectiveness as he slips into morphine addiction. Seward runs the insane asylum where Renfield is imprisoned. And, of course, Dracula becomes a figure of interest because of his foreign strangeness and unnatural charm and charisma.

Because the story is so familiar, at least in part, to many, going further into the tale here doesn’t really warrant much space. However, if the only Dracula you know is the cinematic version(s), there are a number of aspects of this film that may take you by surprise. The reason Coppola called the film what he did is that he sticks pretty closely to Stoker’s original story, even mimicking the use of diary and journal entries for much of his narration. Since the book is written entirely as journal entries, letters, and newspaper accounts, this was a nice nod to the style in which the story was originally told. There are differences. Mina is far more willing as a victim here than she is in Stoker’s work, for instance, and there’s far less of a chase around London to find all of Dracula’s hiding places. The final chase back to Transylvania is much faster here as well. And the Hollywood ending doesn’t track to the book, either.

Because the story is at least vaguely familiar to almost everyone, the things worth paying attention to here are not the story elements, but what Coppola and crew brought to the story. There are some interesting visual effects throughout. Coppola does a lot with shadows and light, as befits the story being told. Frequently, for instance, Dracula’s shadow moves when he does not. The shadow, in fact, frequently depicts Dracula’s mood or desire. Subtle at first, this becomes an increasingly disturbing aspect of the film, and it works brilliantly throughout. Gravity works backwards in some places in Dracula’s castle on some objects—water drops float up and mice crawl on the underside of beams. Small differences like this set up the more disturbing elements of the film. The small changes make the big changes more acceptable.

This is also a more sexually charged Dracula film than most. While many have a hint of the erotic about them, Bram Stoker’s Dracula goes full-bore in this regard. There’s substantial nudity (Dracula’s brides and Lucy in particular), and substantial eroticism. Interestingly, the eroticism is frequently of a disturbing, necrophilic, sado-masochistic nature.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a visual feast, beautiful and terrible to see, and more than most vampire movies, trades on its lush visuals to keep the audience in the seat. I like much of this film, but could have happily lived without Keanu Reeves in the role of a British clerk. Coppola couldn’t find a young, talented Brit for the role? We had to have Ted Logan? Regardless, I appreciate this film because it does what many horror films don’t even attempt to do. Rather than going for the straight gross-out, Bram Stoker’s Dracula attempts real, creeping fear, the look-over-your-shoulder-because-something’s-gonna-getcha-style of fear that is so rare when it happens and so worthwhile when it does.

La Captive (The Captive) does not involve vampires in any way, but does contain some of the same basic themes as Dracula. In it, we find unhealthy obsession, love, and a sense of fatalism that, as I said earlier, seems to attract the romantic in many ways. Here, instead of love from beyond the grave, we have simple obsession of one man for a woman.

The film uses part of Marcel Proust’s massive Remembrance of Things Past for its plot. We spend our time primarily with Simon (Stanislas Merhar), a rich, dissolute young man, and Ariane (Sylvie Testud), his fiancée. Simon suspects Sylvie of some vague type of infidelity, at least at first. As the film progresses, what we discover is that Simon is actually obsessed with this woman, and wants to essentially know everything there is to know about her. His lack of anything better to do with his time causes him to focus strictly on her.

As the story continues, it several things become evident. First, Simon’s behavior is due less to suspicions of Ariane than it is his own paranoia and particular oddness. And he is odd. In terms of sex, he demands that Ariane be completely passive, even pretending to be asleep, for him to have anything like a positive experience. Simon’s suspicions of Ariane’s actual identity as a lesbian with her friend Andree (Olivia Bonamy) is confirmed in his mind when her answers to his incessant questions remain vague. In truth, it’s likely that she’s just trying to keep her own privacy. As he descends further and further into paranoia and suspicion, the relationship becomes increasingly strained and reaches a final breaking point.

All of this sounds great, doesn’t it? Based strictly on the plot, the film comes across like a modern version of Play Misty for Me. Sadly, the execution falls far short of the promise created by the story.

Bluntly, I blame Chantal Akerman. My first glimpse into the film world of Akerman was the eternal and astonishingly dull Jeanne Dielman, that was three hours of boredom, a couple minutes of sex and death, and then eight more minutes of boredom. I’m always willing to give a director a second chance on things, but I’m really starting to think that unless she appears a third time on this list, I’m not going to give her a third chance.

While Akerman definitely has an artistic component to her work, she also seems to actively dislike her audience. Nothing happens. It’s almost like she is daring people to sit through her films, daring them to like them. The film is aggressively dull, and is an improvement on the huge time sink that is Jeanne Dielman only because it’s considerably shorter.

I don’t mind languorous parts of films, or long takes in which little happens. One of my favorite movie scenes ever is the bus stop scene from North by Northwest in which little happens, but tension builds continuously. There are a number of long takes in The Spirit of the Beehive that I found beautiful and moving despite the lack of action. The reason for this is that both films have established themselves enough that the action in those scenes is internal, and we know our characters well enough that we can follow the internal action.

The same cannot be said for these characters. They are little more than mannequins from my perspective, and these long, slow, dull shots contain no internal action because we have not been made privy to the internal desires and actions of the characters. It’s frustrating to watch people sit and stare at each other when we have no clue what’s going on inside their heads. To use these shots, a filmmaker needs to give the audience enough that the internal action can be followed. We don’t get that here.

I am, perhaps, being too harsh. Initially at least there is a sense of suspense and tension, but it’s held for far too long for the amount of information we are given. I don’t care about any of the people in this film, and so I don’t care if they are in peril or are upset or aren’t getting what they want.

Chantal Akerman is zero for two as far as I can see. On a final note, Akerman has a weird sex hang-up. In both of the movies I've seen of hers, women get no pleasure from sex, either because the men are too selfish or are paying for the sex in the first place. If Akerman was a guy, the general reaction would be that he needed to get laid. I'd say the same thing here, but then Akerman's horde of feminist fans would come and gut me like a game fish.

Why to watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula: An attempt at real horror that sometimes works, and (finally), a more faithful adaptation of the book that inspires all vampire stories.
Why not to watch: Duuuude…whoa…vampires…and a sappy ending.

Why to watch La Captive: A modernized version of a classic tale.
Why not to watch: Not a damn thing happens until the end. Again.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Crime and Punishment, Indian-style

Film: A Passage to India
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

When someone says the word “epic” in relation to a film, what do you think of? It’s a good bet that at least one of the movies you think of was directed by David Lean, who made his living directing long movies in exotic locations, which is more or less the hallmark of an epic. Certainly epics can be made in more prosaic (for American standards) locations, but generally speaking, the epic means the exotic—Africa, the South Pacific, India. If not that, then at least we get a sweeping story of grand change, war, revolt, and forbidden, doomed love. Think of epics, and you get Gone With the Wind, Braveheart, Lawrence of Arabia, and Ben-Hur.

A Passage to India fits into that epic genre, but fits far less comfortably in my opinion than a lot of other movies. We do get, from the Western point of view, the exotic location of India. We also get epic length, in that the film stretches out to nearly three hours. That’s a David Lean hallmark. The movies he’s best known for are the type that come with an intermission in the middle.

What we don’t get here is a sweeping story. Instead, we get a very simple story that attempts very much to be about social change and social upheaval near the end of the British Raj, but doesn’t really live up to that promise. The story focuses on Adela Quested (Judy Davis), a vaguely pretty in that emotionless British way woman who is journeying to India to visit her fiancé, Ronny (Nigel Havers). Accompanying her is Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), Ronny’s mother. Ronny is a magistrate, attempting to keep the local, British peace.

The two are shocked to discover that relations between the British and the Indian people have not progressed much. The two never really get together, and the British tend to live like royalty, treating the Indian population like servants or like they do not exist. We see this primarily in the character of Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee). Aziz both loves and hates the English. He appreciates their level of civilization, but detests the way he and his people are treated by the ruling class.

However, he appears to discover a kindred spirit in Mrs. Moore, who wanders into a mosque while Aziz is there. Initially taken aback by her presence, he quickly warms to her, as she appears to understand him both on a personal and cultural level. In short, she doesn’t act like the typical English dame, and Aziz is smitten with her personality. The two encounter each other again at a luncheon, where we are also introduced to two other major players: Dr. Godbole (Alec Guinness), an Indian professor, and Richard Fielding (James Fox), a local school superintendant. On a whim, Aziz invites the entire group for a picnic at the local point of interest, the Marabar Caves. Shortly after, Adela tells Ronny that she will not marry him.

It is here at the caves that things go south. Mrs. Moore becomes claustrophobic in the caves, but Aziz and Adela continue exploring. At one point, high on the side of the cliff, Aziz steps out of a cave for a cigarette, but when he goes back inside, Adela is gone. He sees her running down the cliff, bloody and distraught. He returns down to the ground and learns that Adela is accusing him of raping her, and he is jailed. The rest of the film concerns his trial, the “guilty until proven innocent” belief of the British nationals, and Mrs. Moore’s constant and consistent belief that Aziz is innocent. The interesting piece here, of course, is that Ronny is in the position of standing in judgment over the man who is accused of raping his on-again, off-again fiancée.

Aziz, of course, is innocent of the crime of which he is accused. This is the main thrust of the film; can an Indian national receive justice at the hand of a British magistrate in the British penal system? It’s a story that has been explored a number of different ways in a number of different cultures, and yet the story remains viable and worthwhile.

While the film is beautifully acted and shot, I can’t help but wish that there was more here. To me, an epic should involve massive changes of something. Other Lean films—Dr. Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia come to mind—involve massive stories of social importance and often include huge changes in social structure. A Passage to India changes only a couple of people in the film while the main social climate doesn’t change at all.

I’ve said this before on another blog about this film, but it’s worth saying again; it feels very much like the scope of the film is wrong. I’d love a chance to re-edit the film and cut about an hour of it to get it down to something where the length feels more like it fits the scope of the story. There’s such a small story here that the grand sweep of the film seems too large. It’s not that the film is bad, just that it’s too much for the story that’s here.

Why to watch A Passage to India: The British being very, very British.
Why not to watch: Not enough story for the scope of the film.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Clinical Trials

Film: The Constant Gardener
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

What is a life worth? In the film The Third Man, Harry Lime (Orson Welles) asks this question directly to Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten). As the two are suspended high in the air in a gondola, Lime asks how much would Martins care if one of those dots stopped moving. Lime, in the film, is selling tainted medicine, not caring about the fate of the little moving dots.

The Constant Gardener asks the same question, but does so by getting us up close and personal with a few of those moving dots, asking us then, now that we know them, how much are their lives worth, and how much do we care whether or not they are permitted to live. Our main player is a low-level British diplomat named Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes). He is married to Tessa (Rachel Weisz), a volunteer and activist. The two are stationed in Kenya where Justin works for the British government and Tessa gets involved in local affairs, particularly with a native doctor named Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde).

Tessa and Arnold are off investigating something, but they don’t make it home. Tessa is found in a remote area with her driver, both brutalized and killed. Arnold is found several days later, tortured to death and crucified. The British government calls it the work of a random gang of bandits, but Justin does not believe it. He begins to investigate his wife’s death, coming up with an initial story that changes the deeper he digs.

It’s evident, for instance, that Tessa was having an affair with Arnold until it is revealed that Arnold was a homosexual. There is also evidence of Tessa having an affair with another local government bureaucrat named Sandy (Danny Huston), until this is revealed to be a plot of Tessa’s to get information. Throughout this part of the film, Justin struggles with the idea that Tessa may not have really loved him and may have simply married him as a way to get to Africa and into the work she wanted to pursue. It takes nearly half the film for him to determine the truth behind the strange statements she makes and the evidently scandalous letters she both wrote and received.

Ultimately, Justin discovers that what Tessa was working on was the effects of a new drug called Dypraxa. This new drug has been created to treat tuberculosis, and is being tested on the people of Kenya without their knowledge. Essentially, they must agree to take the medication if they also want to get any other medical treatment. Unfortunately for the company making the drug, it has serious side effects, like death, and these deaths have been covered up by removing the names of the victims from the drug trial records and burying the bodies in an unmarked mass grave.

At the center of the controversy is Sir Bernard Pellegrin (the great Bill Nighy), who stands to make an enormous amount of profit if Dypraxa is released to the world. As Justin continues to investigate, often with the help of other volunteer workers around the world, and in the specific from Tessa’s cousin Ham (Richard McCabe), Justin uncovers a terrible secret of altered trials, cover ups, and potential scandal. It is not until he tracks down the doctor who made Dypraxa, now doing penance for his work in the Sudan (Pete Postlethwaite) that Justin discovers exactly how deep and how far the conspiracy extends.

This is a film of two halves for me. I find the first half slow and not very interesting, although there are some affecting scenes. Just as Justin has come to realize Tessa’s love for him, he returns to their house in Chelsea, which holds many memories. The house is now in disrepair, and his reaction to his destroyed garden (and his destroyed life) is manic and understandable. It’s a painful moment, but a wonderfully acted one.

I enjoy the second half of the film very much. The conspiracy is interesting and smart, and Justin Quayle is smart in how he investigates the events surrounding Tessa’s death and the trials of Dypraxa.

It’s worth noting that I really dislike Rachel Weisz’s character in this film. I understand that she’s a crusader and trying to do something good for the world, but she is extremely abrasive and off-putting. And, while this is more meta than I usually get, since she won an Oscar for this film, she’s started to believe her own press. There was a time when Rachel Weisz would do a film like The Mummy, but those days are past, and I think that’s sad.

The Constant Gardener is a film that one hopes doesn’t reflect reality, since the reality that is reflected is bleak and terrible. The sad truth is that the reality is probably far worse.

EDIT: It's a bit before 7:00 on Saturday morning. I've just gotten home from my neighbor's house--he fell and couldn't get up, and another neighbor and I tried to help. We eventually called the paramedics, who got him up into his chair. I had a flashback to my mother-in-law, who used to fall all the time, usually at ungodly times of the morning. I'm telling you this, because it reminded me of something. I remember the first time I watched The Constant Gardener. It was when we packed up Sue's mom's apartment. So, as odd as it seems, this film is forever linked for me to wrapping glass candy dishes in newspaper and packing them in giant boxes. Odd how those things work, isn't it?

Why to watch The Constant Gardener: A great story that becomes an even greater, gripping story.
Why not to watch: The story here will piss you off if you have even the vestiges of a heart.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Trouble with Noodles

Film: Once Upon a Time in America
Format: DVDs from NetFlix on laptop.

Sergio Leone didn’t do a lot of short films. Of all his films, perhaps the most controversial of these is Once Upon a Time in America. It’s not controversial because of the events of the film or the subject matter, but because of how it was released. Leone created a sprawling film of close to four hours length with his desired cut. The American distributor chopped the film down to almost half of this length. More severe, the American distribution removed the three separate timeline structure from the film and placed the remaining scenes in chronological order, ruining the slow reveal of the story.

Chopped to pieces, the movie is terrible. Placed in its proper order and at its proper length, this is a powerful and meaningful film that touches on themes of love, loss, loyalty, betrayal, and the integrity of criminals. It is a sprawling narrative, and it can be difficult to follow at times, but the film is absolutely worth the near four hours of screen time.

The film takes place in three main time periods. The first is the early 1920s during prohibition, when our main characters are children and young teens. The second is the mid-1930s, right around the end of prohibition. The final period is modern, roughly the mid-1960s, when the remaining surviving characters are much older.

In the ‘20s, we start with a gang of young boys in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in New York. This group is led by David “Noodles” Aaronson (Scott Tiler). His underlings are Philip “Cockeye” Stein (Adrian Curran), notable for his mostly-closed right eye and ever-present panpipe; Patrick “Patsy” Goldberg, identifiable by his strangely beautiful eye color; and Dominic (Noah Moazezi), the smallest of the group. These four are friends with Fat Moe (Mike Monetti), whose father runs the local kosher restaurant, and whose sister Deborah (Jennifer Connelly) is the neighborhood beauty and the obsession of Noodles.

The boys work for a local gangster named Bugsy (James Russo) doing small chores like burning down the newsstand of a man who refuses to pay protection, and rolling drunks for their wallets and watches. They’re stopped from rolling a drunk by a newcomer named Max Bercovicz (Rusty Jacobs). He and Noodles face off against each other, but when both are robbed by the local cop on the beat, they resolve to be friends and form their own gang. Max becomes a co-leader with Noodles, and the two break away from Bugsy. This causes some problems for them, as both are severely beaten by Bugsy and his gang. Eventually, this culminates in Bugsy’s shooting of little Dominic and Noodles’s revenge, which leads to Noodles doing a dozen years in prison while the other three gang members expand their criminal empire. It also ends the first act of the film.

From here, we leap ahead to the ‘30s, and the release of Noodles (now played by Robert De Niro) from prison. While he was in, Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe) and Patsy (James Hayden) have gone into the mortuary business. This is a front for their real business, bootleg liquor and running a speakeasy and a variety of criminal enterprises. Their prostitution ring is run by Peggy (Amy Ryder), a girl from the neighborhood who used to prostitute herself for sweets. Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, who looks disturbingly like Jennifer Connelly) is still around, and there’s still something between her and Noodles.

This section of the film starts with a diamond heist at the behest of a man named Frankie Manoldi (Joe Pesci), who is doing the job as a favor to his brother Joe (Burt Young). What Joe doesn’t know is that as soon as the heist is complete, Max and the gang have agreed to eliminate him, also at Frankie’s behest. This bothers Noodles, since he doesn’t want to have to work for anyone.

Noodles tries to rekindle his relationship with Deborah, but she rebuffs him, telling him that she wants to get to the top, and she’s leaving for Hollywood. In response, he rapes her, then watches her leave on her train, something of a microcosm of Noodles’s life—if he can’t keep something, he destroys it. In typical Leone style, this is filmed as brutally as possible; it’s an uncomfortable scene and painful to watch.

The focus of the gang now turns to a labor union. A union leader named James Conway O’Donnell (Treat Williams) is fighting with the owners of a local factory, and his life is constantly threatened. When he police enter on the side of the scab workers, the gang reacts by switching his infant son in the hospital with a girl and threatening not to tell him where his son is unless he calls off his men. The war between the union leader and a corrupt businessman named Van Linden (Dutch Miller) ends with the death of Van Linden’s gang and the serious wounding of O’Donnell. O’Donnell’s lawyer tells Noodles and Max that prohibition is ending, and they should do something legitimate.

But neither Noodles nor Max wants to go legitimate, and instead comes up with a plan to rob the Federal Reserve Bank. Noodles doesn’t want to do it, figuring no one would make it out alive. To save his friends, Noodles tips the police to the robbery. His friends are killed anyway. Noodles flees, going to Buffalo.

Through these first two sections of the film, we constantly flash forward to the ‘60s and Noodles as an old man. He’s returned to the old neighborhood because of a backwards summons—the old graveyard is being dug up, and he is told that his three friends are not buried there anyway, so he doesn’t need to worry. Essentially, this tells him that someone knows who and where he is. For the rest, though, a spoiler warning is necessary.


In the present day of the film, Noodles discovers that his buddy Max didn’t really die, but changed his name and appearance. Max is now a senator named Bailey, who is being investigated for corruption. Max wants Noodles to kill him, because he doesn’t want to have to deal with the investigation. Noodles refuses because of the wasted 30 years of his own life spent in Buffalo dealing with intense guilt over the loss of his friends. Max leaves, and it is strongly suggested that he does himself in, although there really is no resolution.

However, the film ends in the 1930s around the time of the bank heist. Noodles, rather than being on the job, is in an opium den smoking and zoning out. Since opium (from reports, not personal experience here) produces intense and vivid hallucinations of past and possible future events, the implication is that everything after the failed heist may simply be the opium dream of Noodles. Additional evidence for this is the fact that Deborah ages very little—in the ‘60s, she looks almost the same as she did in the ‘30s. There are other hints as well—the cars that drive by the old Noodles are vintage cars from the 1930s, and the champagne bottles that fall from one of them are the same brand seen in all of the prohibition scenes.

Additionally, just before the end of Prohibition, we’re told that the last job pulled by the gang was done without Noodles, because he was zoned out in an opium den. We see this only at the start of the film and again at the end, implying virtually everything after the rape of Deborah came from the opium. At least that’s how I choose to see it.


I respect Leone’s vision, but this movie is damn long, probably too much so. There’s so much going on all the time, that I had a tendency to lose focus on it from time to time. I understand the problem with the bastardized two-hour version of the film, but I think there are a few minutes here and there that could be cut, bringing the film down to about three hours. This is very much Leone’s style though, long takes of people’s faces where the action is internal rather than on the screen.

Nonetheless, it is a great film. Anything of this size and scope is going to be either magnificent or terrible, and it certainly isn’t terrible. I do question the odd placement of the intermission, though. It comes at nearly the 3-hour mark in the film, leaving a shade over an hour for the finish. While it is probably the most sensible place in the story for the intermission, it does make the film feel lopsided. This is the main reason I’d like to see some cuts in the first part—the film feels top-heavy.

Why to watch Once Upon a Time in America: A brutal, vicious epic.
Why not to watch: Leone spends a lot of time with his camera implying rather than showing.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Playing Against Type

Film: Collateral
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Certain actors play certain roles. I won’t say that every actor is typecast, but some actors seem to gravitate to particular roles more than other actors do. For instance, Humphrey Bogart generally played tough guys, and usually tough guys who were, deep down, straight and narrow. It’s always interesting when an actor goes against type—Bogart playing a money-mad paranoiac in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for instance, makes the film additionally noteworthy. One of the great shock moments in Once Upon a Time in the West comes when everyone’s lovable nice guy, Henry Fonda, shoots a 10-year-old kid in cold blood.

There’s a Tom Cruise type. His characters are generally heroic in some sense. They are often flawed characters, but the flaw comes from an external source. In The Last Samurai, for instance, he plays an alcoholic, but the character is driven to drink by the wholesale slaughter of natives. In Minority Report, he plays a drug addict, but the character is driven to drugs by the abduction and death of his son. In Valkyrie he plays a Nazi, but a Nazi trying to assassinate Hitler. So, when Tom Cruise plays against type, the results are going to be at least interesting.

Collateral is just such a movie. Cruise plays Vincent, a hired killer working for a drug dealer. Vincent needs to eliminate five people in one night to make sure that a pending trial doesn’t happen. He needs to take out some informants and a number of people otherwise connected to the case. His hapless assistant in all of this is a cab driver named Max (Jamie Foxx), who is just going about his nightly rounds, driving fares from one side of L.A. to the other.

Max is a man with a dream. He tells his first fare, a prosecuting attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith), that cab driving is a temporary thing for him—he plans on starting his own limousine company when he works up the right investors and client list. Eventually, he hopes to create something he’ll call Island Limousine, a party in a car where the clients will want to stay with him rather than get out at the airport.

We discover a lot of things about Max in this initial cab ride. He’s very good at his job and he reads people very well. We learn later that he’s been cab driving for a dozen years, and is really no closer to making his dream come true than he was the first day he started driving.

It’s Max’s misfortune that he accepts Vincent as a fare. Vincent asks Max to stay with him for the night, offering him about double his nightly take if he does. Vincent claims that he has to see a series of people about a real estate deal, and that this will take him all over town. Max agrees, only to discover at the first stop that the real estate being talked about is six feet underground and generally has a tombstone over it. Vincent’s first victim falls through a window and onto Max’s cab.

Max, naturally, balks at this, but Vincent and his gun are fairly insistent that Max stay the course and drive Vincent to his series of hits. Max does, but attempts to thwart Vincent at every opportunity, taking calculated risks to get help or attract attention, all of which backfire in very bad ways.

As the night continues, several things happen. First, we discover that Vincent is as good at reading people as Max is. We discover that Vincent also is a lover of free-form jazz music. We learn that he is as good at what he does as Max is. Most importantly, Max is sucked further and further into Vincent’s world as the night goes on, not ever becoming complicit in Vincent’s crimes, but skating closer and closer to that edge with every mile he drives.

While Collateral is a good action movie, it’s better as a character study of these two men. Vincent is simply doing his job, but continually justifies his actions with his nihilism. Max wants to survive to see his limousine company happen, but has never given himself the impetus to do anything other than what he’s already doing. As the two men learn something about each other, they (and we) also learn quite a bit about themselves. The closer they get to the end of the night, the closer they get to a showdown between them, Vincent simply covering his own tracks and Max fighting not only for his life, but also for his soul.

Is it a great movie? I’m not sure. Since it’s no longer in the book, my guess is it showed up for a cup of coffee and vanished just as quickly. It’s a smart movie, though—Michael Mann films generally are—and definitely worth watching. It’s probably for the best that it was removed from the list though, as I can’t think of a specific reason it needs to be seen, other than the fact that Tom Cruise, while he often plays a bad-ass, rarely plays a bad guy. He does it convincingly here, and that’s something to see.


What bothers me about the film is that it becomes a neat, pat package. Max’s first fare turns out to be Vincent’s last potential victim. That sort of bookending feels too planned out to me—too coincidental to be anything other than something directly out of a movie, which of course this is. That Max acts at the end to save Annie the lawyer rather than himself is a little disappointing. When it became evident that she was the last person on the list, I wasn’t shocked. Instead, I just sighed, figuring that sort of neat package was par for the Hollywood course.


Why to watch Collateral: Tom Cruise is a stone-cold killer.
Why not to watch: The bow that wraps this package does so too neatly.

Sunday, July 4, 2010


Film: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on middlin’-sized living room television.

It’s convenient and easy to think of life fifty, sixty, or seventy years ago was simpler time. I don’t think it’s true, but it most certainly was in the movies. Good guys were good guys and they were all good. The only vices they had was being too good. The bad guys were all bad, and the only good thing they could do was die. Good always won, evil always lost, and never, never, never were the American ideals compromised.

Much of that Hollywood revisionist history came from Frank Capra, which is where Mr. Smith Goes to Washington came from. It’s a good winning out over evil all the way. Mom and apple pie triumphant.

Here’s the pitch: A senator from an unnamed state dies. As it turns out, the senator was horribly corrupt, and was in the middle of a shady land deal that stood to make him, the leading businessman in his state, and a handful of others fabulously wealthy. A new lame duck senator is needed until the next election. Conferring with the equally corrupt senior senator from the state, Joseph Paine (Claude Rains) and shady business tycoon Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), the governor appoints Jefferson Smith (James Stewart).

Smith is a pure bumpkin. He’s apple pie and America all the way; he can quote Washington and Lincoln, and runs an organization for wayward boys not unlike the Boy Scouts. He believes firmly in the American ideal, and believes equally that the men in government really do all they can for the little people, that they are true servants of the people and serve the highest ideals. In essence, he’s a good-hearted rube. This is in no small part because of his impression of Senator Paine, who happened to be the former partner of Smith’s father. Jeff Smith knows Paine only from the man’s idealistic days, and not his present corrupted self.

Smith is immediately surrounded by the cynical worst of Washington, most especially his new assistant, Saunders (Jean Arthur) and her press pal Diz Moore (Thomas Mitchell). Saunders isn’t keen to nursemaid a goof like Smith. He’s not helped by his sudden infatuation with Smith’s daughter Susan (Astrid Allwyn).

Smith, because he’s a naïve goof, the press initially has a field day with Smith, making him play the fool, because the press corps is as corrupt and jaded as it appears most of the senators are. Eventually, under the advice of Senator Paine, Smith pens a bill proposing a national summer camp for boys. Unfortunately for Jeff Smith, the plot of land he wants to use, Willet (sp?) Creek, is exactly the same spot being used for the shady land deal run by Senator Paine and Jim Taylor.

And that’s the story. Paine and Taylor do everything they can to discredit Smith, eventually trying to pin the land deal on him. Smith, and his group of wayward boys fight the rap, eventually leading to a massive filibuster of Smith against the entire rest of the Senate. Everything comes down to a couple of important moments, not the least of which is the Vice President recognizing Smith on the Senate floor to begin the filibuster.

This is a film that trades on the highest of high ideals, showing the little guy fighting against overwhelming odds, battling against corruption and maintaining his dignity against everything that can be thrown at him. It’s a little hard to stomach in these more jaded times. We live in a world where political divisiveness feels like it is tearing the country apart and that even young kids can’t hold to high ideals anymore. As such, seeing a grown man work himself into a lather over truth, justice, and the American way feels silly. And yet it’s also endearing and sweet.

What surprises me more than anything is that the film has not been remade. It seemed like a natural project for “liberal” Hollywood during the Bush years, and seems like a natural product for the conservative crowd now—pointing out what they see (or saw) as the corruption and graft at the highest levels of government. In fact, every day that goes by that a remake isn’t named, I wonder when that particular shoe will drop.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington succeeds on the strength of its performances. Stewart, whether he believed in these ideals or not, sells it as the idealistic Smith. For that, and because it’s always nice to see good triumph over evil, the film will always be something special.

Why to watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Makes one believe in Americana as reality.
Why not to watch: Because the reality is sadly different.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Two in Every Deck

Films: Batman, The Dark Knight
Format: VHS from personal collection (Batman), DVD from Rasmussen College Library (The Dark Knight), both on big ol’ television.

Ever since Adam West donned a cowl and tights, Batman has had a problem with camp. The original Batman television series was fun, silly, and campy—deliberately so. It couldn’t be taken seriously because it didn’t take itself seriously. Because of this, when the character first came to the big screen, there were some very large hurdles to overcome.

To be honest, Tim Burton didn’t overcome all of those hurdles. There’s plenty of Batman that begs to be taken seriously, but much cannot be, and a lot of this comes from the art direction of the film. It’s impossible to take Gotham City as a real place because it seems to exist in no real time period. The technology is all real and modern, but the look is something from an idealized 1930s or thereabout. Criminals all dress like Dick Tracy villains, for instance. The city is an art deco wonderland of massive architecture and sculptures. There’s no way to tell when this film might take place—Gotham exists in a bizarre twilight zone of old cars and modern technology. The architecture of the city is schizo-gothic, all gargoyles and giant evil machinery.

Chances are that you’ve already seen this film, but on the off chance you haven’t, Batman covers the origin of the superhero character and then his battle with the insidious Joker. The Batman is the alternate identity of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who witnessed his parents being murdered when he was a child. In response, he became a creature of terror designed to frighten the criminal element.

We also get a mob war started by Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), who works for crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). What Grissom doesn’t know is that Jack is two-timing him with Grissom’s girlfriend Alicia (Jerry Hall). Grissom takes revenge by setting Jack up at a heist in a chemical plant. During the course of the raid and the attempt to kill or capture Napier, Batman shows up and dumps him into a vat of chemicals (mirroring the origin story from the graphic novel The Killing Joke). Napier survives, becoming the Joker thanks to the extreme physical damage from the toxic sludge.

Throw into this a reporter named Knox (Robert Wuhl) and a photographer named Vicki Vale (Kim Bassinger). Both want to break the story on the Batman. Vale also manages to start a relationship with Bruce Wayne, who, thanks to his extracurricular activities as a dude in a cowl and cape, behaves very oddly.

In addition to the campiness, the film has some very strange issues. These are best handled under a spoiler warning, just in case you’re under 16 or live under a rock.


The biggest break with reality for me here is not the Joker’s face or the weird, campy elements of the film. I can accept those for what they are. What I have trouble with is Alfred (Michael Gough) bringing Vicki Vale into the Batcave while Bruce Wayne is sitting at his computer. Why the hell would Alfred blow Batman’s biggest secret, and do so with a journalist? Even more, once the two have a chance to talk, her reaction is to ask if they are going to try to continue a real relationship. Any human being in that situation would spend at least five minutes screaming, “Holy shit! You’re Batman!”

Another thing is this—at the end of the film, Batman and Vicki Vale are hanging off the roof of a building while the Joker dances above them like a madman. Anyone with even a little Batman knowledge—like the first 100 minutes of this film—knows enough to realize no one is in danger. He’s friggin’ Batman, and he falls off roofs all the time.


There are things I like here. The Joker’s main henchman, Bob (Tracey Walter) is great. He doesn’t do much and doesn’t have a lot of lines, but he’s fun to have on screen as a sort of constant presence. I also really like Michael Keaton in this role. There have been, in the movies, four distinct takes on the Batman/Bruce Wayne character. The current is the guttural and vicious version paired with the savvy playboy in the franchise reboot. Keaton’s Batman is good in a fight, but far less the unstoppable warrior. His take on Bruce Wayne is more interesting. As Wayne, Keaton comes off as a dilettante, a man with too much money and not enough sense or much ability to control that much cash. It’s an interesting idea for the character, and a good one.

Jack Nicholson as the Joker steals every scene he is in, which should come as no surprise. Part of the reason, if not the entire reason for casting him in the role is what he brings to it. Nicholson plays the Joker as a completely unhinged, surreal criminal. He’s Dadaism with legs and a purple coat.

The biggest complaint I have, though, is that for an action movie that really depends on the quality of the stunts and the fights, most of the fights are so dark that it’s impossible to tell what is happening. Someone should have informed Burton that more light in the fight sequences helps the audience to understand what is going on.

The rebooted Batman franchise brought us the fifth actor to legitimately play the role (Adam West, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and now Christian Bale, assuming that you accept Adam West’s and George Clooney’s portrayals as “legitimate”). This is a much different incarnation of the Caped Crusader than the earlier versions.

The origin of this version of Batman is covered in Batman Begins, so we don’t rehash it here, which I appreciate. I get tired of watching origin stories over and over, so I’m pleased that there wasn’t one in this film. Additionally, in an interesting choice, there’s no origin story for the Joker (Heath Ledger) in this film. He simply exists. This is a very different Joker than in the first film. This one is not a guy freakishly burned by chemicals, but a man with terrible facial scars in the shape of a huge grin. The Joker makeup is obviously makeup, designed to look as if he’d been wearing it for a couple of days. It’s a great effect. He comes from nowhere, has no history, and no real story other than his own insanity. He gives two versions of how he got the scars, and neither one is likely to be the truth.

The Joker starts the film with a bank heist, and then takes on the Mob, offering to kill Batman for half of their money. They sort of accept, mostly because of the influence of Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts), and all hell breaks loose.

The Joker here calls himself an agent of chaos, and that’s what he is. There’s nothing he does here that makes a lot of sense except as a way to create anarchy, but it works well. Ledger’s performance is one of the great performances in film in the last 10 years, and arguably the greatest comic book film performance ever. He’s horribly disturbing, and it’s great to watch.

Another plus here is that all of the cast from the original film returned with one exception. This means Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon. This time we get Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachael Dawes (instead of Katie Holmes). We also get Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent. All good.

All of this is great, but there are some issues here. For one thing, I disagreed with the PG-13 rating. I’m not sure the film deserves an R, but I can’t think of a 13-year-old I’d let see it. The Joker is really scary, and when Harvey Dent becomes Two-Face, his burns are absolutely horrifying. They’re nightmare-inducing.

Frankly, I like Batman Begins better.

The obvious question here is which of the two Joker adaptations is better. I prefer Ledger’s performance. It comes closer to the darker version of the Joker I prefer, and it feels very much like it’s entirely a unique vision—there is precedent for the way Nicholson performed the role, but Ledger’s version is its own thing.

As far as it goes, I understand why The Dark Knight was selected to be in the book. I’m not so sure about Burton’s Batman except possibly for the art direction. There are better superhero movies out there that should be included before it. Iron Man, Hellboy, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, and V for Vendetta are all better films, and all worthy of watching. Then again, I didn’t make the list, did I?

Why to watch Batman: Jack Nicholson.
Why not to watch: Camp overload.

Why to watch The Dark Knight: Batman the way he should be, and the Joker played to perfection.
Why not to watch: “Dark” describes more than just the superhero in this film.