Movie Reviews - 2000s postsFriday February 25, 2011
Movie Review: “Oswald's Ghost” (2007)
WARNING: MAGIC SPOILERS
Norman Mailer gives us the title. “Oswald is the ghost that lays over American life,” he says, with his usual twinkle, near the end of this well-made documentary. “What is abominable and maddening about ghosts is you never know the answer. Is it this or is it that? You can’t know because the ghost isn’t telling you.”
Yet “Oswald’s Ghost” tells us plenty—because it’s less conspiracy theory, or conspiracy debunker, than conspiracy history. It takes us chronologically, and cleanly, through events, and delves into why we began to believe there was a cover-up, and what it means that we now believe there was a cover-up, and how we now act as a result. It sees the Kennedy assassination as the great dividing point of the American century, the break from which we never recovered. John F. Kennedy began his administration with the pro-government rhetoric of his inaugural—“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”—and yet the mystery surrounding his assassination, along with the lies of Vietnam and Watergate, set the stage for the anti-government rhetoric of Ronald Reagan and all of his acolytes, from which we still haven’t recovered.
Is there a story of the last 50 years that’s been told more often than the Kennedy assassination? Yet filmmaker Robert Stone, working for PBS and “The American Experience,” finds footage, and photos, I’ve never seen before. Here’s Oswald in the Dallas police station professing his innocence so matter-of-factly that I began to believe him:
Oswald (in glare of TV lights): I'd like some legal representation, but these police officers have not allowed me to have any. I don't know what this is all about.
Reporter: Did you kill the president?
Oswald: No, sir, I didn't. People keep asking me that. ... They are taking me in because of the fact that I lived in the Soviet Union. I'm just a patsy.
One suddenly wonders: Hey, how did they trace him to the murder of Officer Tippit? How did they find him in that Dallas movie theater? How did they make him the focal point of the worst American murder of the 20th century?
Newsman: Was this the man that you believed killed President Kennedy?
Dallas police: I think we have the right man.
Dan Rather: Confusion reigned inside the Dallas police station.
Abraham Zapruder didn’t help. Instead of showing his film to the American people, he hired a lawyer and sold the rights to Life magazine, which printed individual frames. The film itself wouldn’t be shown on television until 1975.
Oswald’s mother didn’t help. She said her son was being framed, which one expects, but she also said her son was a government agent, which raised spectres.
Jack Ruby certainly didn’t help.
Did Mark Lane? The New York lawyer became the first man to openly question whether Oswald acted alone, in a December 1963 article in The National Guardian entitled “Lane’s defense brief for Oswald.”
Did the Warren Commission? Shouldn’t its hearings have been public? Shouldn’t we have taken our time with the matter instead of rushing out a verdict before the 1964 elections?
Yet, at the time, most Americans accepted the lone-gunman theory. That would quickly change as conspiracy books began appearing, then proliferating, two and three years later: First Lane’s “Rush to Judgment,” then Edward Jay Epstein’s “Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth.” Then it was off to the races.
Initially outsiders were blamed. It was Castro or the KGB. It was the South Vietnamese government, responding to the Diem assassination. Eventually we began blaming ourselves. It was some rogue CIA element. It was some right-wing element that wanted to stay in Vietnam just as JFK was getting ready to pull us out. “And like all those theories,” Mailer says, “it had a certainly plausibility and a depressing lack of proof.”
That didn’t stop New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison, wild-eyed and bug-eyed, and the worst of the conpiratorialists, who went after Clay Shaw, a prominent, closeted businessman. Stone (Robert, not Oliver) includes a fascinating 1967 news report critical of Garrison:
Garrison’s investigation has seemed to concentrate on homosexuals. That of course is an old police trick, and homosexuals have been a particular target of Garrison’s over the years. Even members of his staff have been privately critical of his emphasis on men whose deviation makes them vulnerable.
1968 didn’t help. Both MLK and RFK were assassinated by “lone gunmen.” Both were progressives. How could it not be conspiracy? (But did it have to lead to the inaninities of “The Parallax View”?)
Post-Watergate, the Church Committee detailed all of those early 1960s CIA assassinations of foreign leaders. Was Malcolm X more right than he knew? Was the JFK assassination a case of the chickens coming home to roost?
It’s the Ruby factor that’s always bugged me. He had mob ties. He was a strip-club owner. Yet he killed Oswald, effectively silencing him, out of respect for Jackie? Out of sudden anger? Tie that with the difficulty of Oswald's shot, of squeezing three bullets out of the 6.5 mm Carcano rifle in the time allotted, and of the whole back-and-to-the-left thing, with that final shot, the kill shot, looking, in the Zapruder film, like it’s blasting him from the front, well, you know, maybe there was something to it.
It's Jack Ruby's dog who pushes us back from the brink. Oswald was scheduled to be moved at 10:00 a.m. that Sunday morning. Here’s Hugh Aynesworth, a Dallas reporter:
Ruby slept 'til probably 9:30 or 9:20 something of that sort, and then he drives with his dog down to the Western Union and sent a telegram at 11:17 that morning. Came out and he looked one block up and he saw the crowd there at the police department. Jack Ruby was always on the scene of action, whether it be a fire, whether it be a raid, whether it be a parade, whatever. He had to be there. And he knew some of those cops. The fact that he left the dog in the car indicates to me that he thought he was going down to send a telegram and go back home. He took that little dog everywhere with him.
Few have assumed conspiracy longer and more vocally than Norman Mailer—yet even he comes around. “The internal evidence just wasn't there,” he says. “There were too many odd moments that just didn't add up.” Instead he focuses on Oswald’s mindset:
I think what Oswald saw was that if he committed the crime, if he assassinated Kennedy and he got away with it, then he would have an inner power that no one could ever come near. And, if he was caught, well then, he was quite articulate, he would have one of the greatest trials in America's history, if not the greatest, and he would explain all of his political ideas. He would become world famous and might have an immense effect upon history ...
When he shot Tippit, I think at that point he knew he was doomed because he could no longer make the great speech. If you shoot a policeman forget it, you're a punk. And so after he was caught he did nothing but protest his innocence and say, “I'm a patsy.”
“If you shoot a policeman, forget it, you're a punk.”
“This is not a whodunnit,” says Stone (Robert, not Oliver) in a DVD special features interview. “This is what a whodunnit has done to us.” He adds: “Conspiracy theory is part of the human condition; and it always will be.” Think of the doc as one Stone to correct another.
Is conspiracy the new American religion? The notion that we exist as small nothings for a short span of time in a cosmic eternity is unbearable, and thus we construct meaning out of it. The notion that this small nothing brought down the most powerful, glamorous man in the world is unbearable, and thus we construct meaning out of it. It was our enemies—foreign or domestic. It was the left or right. It was anything—please, God, let it be anything—other than little Lee Harvey Oswald.
Review: “Cadillac Records”
Has any film fudged rock n’ roll history as much as this one? How bad of a storyteller are you when, given the long history of white artists stealing from black artists, you gotta make shit up?
It’s not even subtle shit. “Cadillac Records“ is mostly about the relationship between Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) and Leonard Chess (Adrien Brody) at Chess Records, and to a lesser extent the relationships between Muddy and Little Walter (Columbus Short), and Chess and Etta James (Beyonce Knowles), but more than halfway through the film, rising star Chuck Berry (Mos Def), who is basically credited with inventing rock n’ roll here, is angry that the Beach Boys’ 1963 song “Surfin’ USA” is ripping off his “Sweet Little Sixteen.”
Flags went up. “What happened to the rest of the ‘50s?” I asked Patricia. Then Berry gets busted for transporting a minor across state lines, and, as he’s being led away, he laments the fact that Jerry Lee Lewis gets away with marrying his 13-year-old cousin.
More flags. “Jesus, what year is this supposed to be?” I asked Patricia. “That happened in the ‘50s. And Jerry Lee Lewis didn’t get away with shit. Marrying his cousin ended his career, didn’t it?” Five years later we see Berry getting out of prison, and he sees images of Elvis Presley singing to girls and being declared the king of rock n’ roll on TV.
“Oh, please,” I said to Patricia, who, by now, was getting sick of my yakking. “Are they implying that Elvis became popular while Berry was in prison? That he became king then? I mean, what the hell?”
Some perspective. Berry and Presley, as record charters, were basically contemporaries. Presley’s “That’s All Right (Mama)” was on the air in the south in the summer of ’54, while Berry didn’t go to Chess Records to record “Maybellene” (and “invent rock n’ roll”) until May 1955. Meanwhile, tons of other artists, from Ray Charles to Bill Haley & His Comets, were doing their thing. Forces were at work, and they’d been at work for a long time; and if you wanted to call this thing “new,” and if you wanted to call it “rock n’ roll,” great, but don’t pretend one man invented it — whether that one man is Bill Haley, Elvis Presley or, here, Chuck Berry. I don't know much about music history but I know that much.
More perspective. Berry got busted under the Mann Act in 1959. So why show this after the Beach Boys’ 1963 recording? Why couldn’t the filmmakers show Berry getting busted and then, upon release, have him hear the Beach Boys ripping him off? That’s works just as well with the movie's themes and has the added advantage of being historically accurate.
What a sad movie. It takes a meaty subject — all the talent that congregated at Chess Records in the ‘50s and ‘60s — and makes weak broth out of it. Lord knows I love Jeffrey Wright, but there’s something minimalist in his approach, something that refrains from the spotlight, that makes him seem wrong to play one of the great singer/guitarists of our time. He gets eaten alive in the battle with Howlin’ Wolf (Eamonn Walker). He disappears as the movie progresses. Maybe that’s the point. But something feels missing. The performance works and then it doesn't.
But at least when it works, thanks to Wright, it really works. The same can't be said for the rest of the film. I don't get any sense of Leonard Chess: What makes him tick, what keeps him alive. Whether he was ripping off artists or aiding them. Or in what ways he was ripping off artists and in what ways he was aiding them. The portrait's nothing but smeary — as if both enemies and loved ones were involved in the creation of it.
Worse, once the movie starts fudging its history, you don't know what to believe. Chess hires Etta James as a prostitute, then hears her singing in the bathroom? Please. Chess dies of a heart attack two blocks from Chess Records after selling it in 1969? Pretty please.
Admittedly it’s a tough story to tell. So many lives, so many larger-than-life characters, all in one spot. So couldn’t the focus have been the messiness of those lives creating works of near-perfection? That tension? Told without the bullshit and easy answers and finger-pointing? Hell, why not just focus on the heyday? Chicago, 1950-54. Make drama out of that. End with the arrival of Chuck Berry and something “new.”
Wouldn’t that be enough?
One-sentence Review: Rachel Getting Married (2008)
The weight of family history (even if it doesn't involve tragedy) makes family celebrations (even if they don't involve a wedding) a bit of an oxymoron.
Two-Minute Review: The Wrestler (2008)
I have little in common with Randy “the Ram” Robinson, the wrestler of “The Wrestler.” He likes what I don’t (‘80s hair metal), lives where I haven’t (trailer park) does what I could never do (wrestles). And yet I wholly identified with him. Maybe it’s because we’ve both reached a certain age. Maybe it’s that sense of hitting a dead end and being unable to see a way out or back. There’s a scene where, out of necessity, Randy moves from doing manual labor in the back of a grocery store to working with the public in the front. You know why he doesn’t want to do it. He was once a star, and now he’s here, and he doesn’t want people to know he’s here. I even identified with that. It reminded me of after high school, after college, the jobs you didn’t want, the things you didn’t want to have to wear when you had the jobs you didn’t want. It reminded me of this thought: Please don’t let anyone see me here. Most of the jobs our economy creates — when it was creating jobs — are those kinds of jobs. Please don’t let anyone see me here.
“The Wrestler” is a hard movie to watch, and, despite the above, and despite some pretty gruesome wrestling scenes, the toughest part, for me, was watching how needy Randy becomes once wrestling is taken away from him. “The Wrestler” is a perfectly titled movie because that’s who Randy is, and once he’s told he can’t be that he doesn’t know how to live. In life you struggle to find a thing you like and do well, and hope you get paid for it, and for a time Randy the Ram was paid well (in money, in fame, in everything that goes with it) for doing the thing he liked and did well. Then he wasn’t. Falls happen. We don’t know why his did, it just did.
Some have compared this movie with “Rocky” — both are about gentle giants, working class bruisers, who make their living in the ring — but the comparisons end there. “Rocky” is about a guy who never made it but is given a chance. “The Wrestler” is about a guy who did make it…and then has everything taken away. That’s what the movie is about. What do you do when everything is taken away? What do you do when you reach the dead end?
There’s an answer.
Movie Review: Marley & Me (2008)
I went to Marley & Me because Patricia wanted to go, and because we were visiting family and it seemed the kind of film the nephews (Ryan, 5, and Jordy, 7) could see as well, but I expected little. I hadn’t read the best-seller on which it was based. Hadn’t friends told me it was sappy? Didn't it play upon our love of cute puppies? You could argue a yellow-lab puppy on a movie poster isn’t much different than a bikini-clad girl on a movie poster: our covetedness of what’s on the poster is in inverse proportion to the movie’s probable worth.
Yet Marley & Me, shockingly, contains something like the messiness of life. It’s a good life, admittedly, and a life that doesn’t exist much anymore. The main characters, John and Jennifer Grogan (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston), recently married, try to find a place in an industry, newspapers, that’s still thriving in the early 1990s. They’re beautiful and blonde, and live in a sunny state (Florida), but they’re not all sunny. Choices are made but doubts remain. Opportunities are given (a lifestyle column) but original plans die hard.
John wants to be a crack investigative journalist like his friend Sebastian, and he envies the man’s swinging bachelor lifestyle. But Jennifer wants kids. Sebastian, hearing John’s dilemma, suggests a dog, and the couple winds up with the title character, a yellow-lab puppy, the world’s worst dog. Cue misadventures. It’s fun stuff. And who doesn’t love an umanageable dog that’s owned by someone else?
But the movie isn’t really about the dog. Or if it is, it’s about what the dog represents: messiness. Most films excise messiness; Marley & Me doesn’t because messiness is the point.
So John and Jennifer decide to have kids, but she has a miscarriage...on the way to having three kids. It would’ve been easy, as a screenwriter, as a director, to get rid of the miscarriage — it didn’t add greatly to the movie — but they kept it in.
So the neighborhood they live in is dicey — a neighbor is attacked and knifed by her car — and you think, “Ah, this is how Marley shows his worth. He gets the guy preying on the neighborhood.” No. John and Jennifer simply move. To a bigger house in a better neighborhood. Then to an even bigger house in another state. Life keeps happening.
Halfway through, there’s a montage, the “wrote a column about...” montage, that is one of the better examples of the device I’ve seen. Most modern montages borrow from Rocky as a quick way to show the title character improving, but Marley’s montage merely shows life happening and is thus infinitely relatable. Most of us don’t improve the way Rocky improves. (Sorry.) We just wind up in a place where we wonder: “How did I get a spouse and kids and this home and this job? How did I get fat and old? This wasn’t part of the plan.” Marley is like the movie version of that great John Lennon line: Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.
There’s a nice scene near the end between Sebastian, now a star with The New York Times, and John, a reporter for a Philadelphia newspaper, meeting by happenstance in downtown Philly. They exchange greetings, John shows a photo of the family, and there it is: Something like envy in Sebastian’s look and voice. Each envies the other’s life but each is happy enough with his own life. There’s a kind of melancholy in this. It’s not that we make good or bad choices; it’s that everyday, by the choices we make, we kill off other ways we might be. There’s great sadness in this.
Am I making too much out of what is, after all, only a dog movie? I don’t think so. Screenwriter Scott Frank is responsible for writing Minority Report, Out of Sight, Get Shorty; director David Frankel not only directed The Devil Wears Prada (another nice surprise) but is the son of Max Frankel, longtime executive editor of The New York Times, and so knows his way around a newsroom. I’m not saying the movie’s brilliant. I’m just saying that in the battle between sappy and true, more often than not, they opted for true.
We had our own messiness just going to the film. The 5-year-old threw a tantrum and stayed home and a lot of the film was over the head of the 7-year-old. Jordy has his own Marley — Seymour, the world’s most underfoot dog — and we worried how he would take the death of Marley. At the least, he seemed to take it better than Patricia, who cried for the last 10 minutes, but we’re not sure. We talked about it on the way to the car, and in the car, but I was beginning to feel the affects of an attack of bronchitis and wasn’t sharp enough or attentive enough to gauge Jordy’s reaction. More messiness. Anyway Jordy was off in his own world. He was busy making other plans. Most likely about the adventures of Lego Indiana Jones on the Wii.