erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2009 posts

Thursday September 08, 2016

Movie Review: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? (2009)

Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

WARNING: SPOILERS

This is the doc Donald Trump supporters need to watch.

Yes, Trump has done worse things, but killing a pro football league is something his supporters might pay attention to. Look at the people he hurt: beefy, blue collar white dudes. Chuck Pitcock, guard for the Tampa Bay Bandits, talks about crying for joy when he looked around the stadium before his first professional game in the league’s 1984 inaugural season. “I was living my dream,” he says.

Compare that with Trump’s 2009 dismissal of the entire league. “Small potatoes,” he says.

As you watch, that dismissive quote keeps going through your head. And you think: You know, it wasn’t small potatoes to a lot of these guys. To a lot of these guys, it was everything.

And by the end, we know who’s small potatoes.

Hold onto your wallet
I stopped paying attention to pro football in the early 1980s—four Minnesota Vikings Super Bowl losses will do that to you—so I hardly remember the USFL. Apparently they were born out of a combination of the 1982 NFL strike, the rise of cable TV, and the sense that the American appetite for football was insatiable. So why not try a spring league?

They did—12 teams the first year, 18 after that—and immediately started signing college stars. Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Doug Flutie all went to the USFL. The league was young and fun. “All the fun the law will allow” was a Tampa Bay Bandits slogan. They allowed imaginative touchdown celebrations. They invented the two-point conversion. They came up with the instant replay/ref challenge.

And in the first year they did better than expected: 25,000 a game, TV share over 6.0.

And in the second year they got Trump.

He bought the New Jersey Generals and started pushing to move the league into the fall; to compete directly with the NFL. “I’d like to move now,” he said back then. “I’d like to challenge for a couple of years: keep challenging, challenging.”

What did the guys in the league think of the Donald?

  • USFL announcer Keith Jackson: “He was a dynamic figure—but he was dynamic in behalf of the Donald Trump interests, not the whole league.”
  • Burt Reynolds, general partner of the Bandits: “I hold onto my wallet when I shake hands, but I like him.”
  • NJ General announcer Charley Steiner: “I’ve always felt that the USFL in Trump’s mind was all about Donald.”

What did they think about his push to move the league to the fall?

  • Jackson: “The silliest thing I ever heard.”
  • Reynolds: “To go head to head with them was insane.”
  • QB Steve Young: “Everybody sensed that that was not going to go well.”

Trump’s main opponent in moving the league was Bandits’ owner John Bassett, who was more of a stay-the-course guy. He’d been an owner in the World Football League in the 1970s and didn’t want to fail twice. Start small, build slowly, then maybe compete directly with the behemoth that was the NFL in seven or eight years: that was the plan. Others respected him. It was him vs. Donald.

So what happened? Bassett was diagnosed with multiple brain tumors. Then his body weakened.  Then Donald took over. “He was like a shark,” someone says. “Just ate up everything around him.”

Here’s Pitcock: “He manipulated [the other owners]. At that point, there was four or five owners that were broke, that didn’t have the power or the money. And they figured if they rode with Donald, they might end up with some. [But] you ain’t going to end up with none. He gonna throw your ass to the street, too.”

In 1986, the drama moved from the gridiron to the courtroom, where the USFL sued the NFL for monopolistic practices. The hope was to win, get a big settlement, use it as a springboard to launch the league in autumn.

Well, they won. But the settlement wasn’t exactly what they wanted. When teams spend millions for players, it’s hard to cry poverty. Plus the Donald was there all the time, and everyone knew how much money he had. So the jury offered a slim settlement: $1 to be exact.

The USFL died. Who killed it? 

  • “I still feel, and will always feel, that [Trump’s] ambitions—his personal ambitions—were what sunk the league,“ says Burt Reynolds. 
  • “I think that the USFL three-year activity was similar to his ‘Apprenticeship’ show, you know?” says Chuck Pitcock. "He went in it, and he orchestrated it, then when he was done with them and he didn’t win his lawsuit and get the NFL, he just fired everybody and cleaned house. ‘I’m done. That’s good. Y’all have a nice day.’”

Steve Young says he still feels bad about the demise of the league. “It provided hundreds of jobs for guys that had a tremendous passion for football. And those jobs went away and they didn’t need to.”

And Donald? The guy who killed the league? Who lost all of those jobs? He’s not exactly contrite.

“I actually think I got the league to go as far as it went,” he says in a 2009 interview. “Without me, this league would have folded a lot sooner.”

A great lawsuit
I’ve got to bring up the Charley Steiner thing. It’s so creepy. It’s so Trump.

The documentary was made by Michael Tollin, who, as a 20-something in the 1980s, put together the USFL equivalent of “NFL Films”: the self-promotional weekly highlights. Trump liked him. So he agreed to be interviewed by him in 2009. But he didn’t like him in 2009. Tollin kept asking tough questions, and Trump didn’t like that.

Worse, Tollin starts quoting other people about Trump to Trump. One of them was former Trump employee Charley Steiner. And the quote goes like this: “Donald wanted to become a bigshot, and his entrée into being a big shot was buying himself a football team.”

Trump’s on-camera response? Attack, belittlement, threats. “Charley Steiner was nobody. Charley Steiner couldn’t get a job, and we put him on the USFL, so I hope he said that in a friendly way. Because if he didn’t I’d love to take him on just like I take everybody else on.”

Trump adds: “I hope he remains loyal. And if he doesn’t let me know and I’ll attack him.”

Think about all of this for a second. Donald Trump is known for his business sense. But how dumb—or vain, or pigheaded, or blinkered—do you have to be to sink an entire professional football league. In America.

Of course, he walked away from it unscathed. It was others who suffered. Him, he didn’t even suffer a pang of guilt.

“Honestly,” he says in 2009, “I don’t even think about the USFL anymore. It was a nice experience. It was fun. We had a great lawsuit.”

“Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch it before the 2016 election. 

Posted at 06:06 AM on Thursday September 08, 2016 in category Movie Reviews - 2009   |   Permalink  

Saturday February 07, 2015

Movie Review: Nowhere Boy (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I kept waiting for it. Aunt Mimi’s line. One of the most famous in rock ‘n’ roll history. All together now:

The guitar’s all right, John, but you’ll never make a living from it.

The question is when. Will she say it after John's been suspended from school and she punishes him by selling his guitar? Nope. OK, what about after he buys it back again? Or when he's just playing it too loudly? Hey, maybe they’ll end with it! That would make sense. Good last line, since we know he’ll not only make a living with it, he’ll make history with it. But they don’t end that way, either. They end with John (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) telling Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) that he’s off to Hamburg with the lads and he’ll call her when he arrives. Nowhere BoyThen he’s out the door and down the street, and the soundtrack picks up on John Lennon’s “Mother” (“You had me/ But I never had you”), and ... credits.

Bloody hell.

Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (“Control”) and director Sam Taylor-Wood get a lot right, but I don’t know how they could’ve missed that one.

Actually they get a lot wrong, too.

Doesn’t have a point of view
Start with Paul. Please.

I like Thomas Brodie-Sangster. I liked him in “Love Actually” and “Game of Thrones.” He’s a good young actor. Cute, too. But he’s kind of spooky cute, while Paul was the epitome of cute: puppy-dog eyes, rosebud lips, a bit of an overbite. Plus Brodie-Sangster’s Paul is much too slight next to Taylor-Johnson’s John. Brodie-Sanster is actually a month older than Taylor-Johnson but he looks about five years younger. Paul was the most accomplished singer of the group, and they make him seem the least here. They make George (Sam Bell) seem more confident and outgoing than Paul. George.

But they get a lot right: Paul meeting John after a Quarrymen (skiffle) concert and impressing everyone because he knows the music and lyrics to Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” George doing something similar on the back of the bus. They also do their best to make such moments seem ordinary rather than freighted with meaning. They’re not triumphant; they’re just another day.

Taylor-Johnson is a good actor, and there are times, particularly once he begins wearing the Clark Kent glasses with the leather jacket, where, boy, he looks a lot like John in that period: the rock ‘n’ roll John. At the same time, he won’t make anyone forget Ian Hart. And don’t they make him too nice for much of the movie? John was a tough SOB, and often a prick, and you get a bit of that at the end. You get the silly drawings and the silly wordplay (later described as “Joycean” by reviewers around the world), and you get a reference to Stu, as in Sutcliffe, John’s art student friend who died of a brain aneuryism in 1962. There’s a real effort to be historically accurate to John’s life in the years between 1955 and 1960. But too much is missing. 

The movie is essentially a battle for John’s soul, or some such, between two sisters—the rowdy biological mother and the strict, steadfast aunt who raised him—and the big reveal is how and why Mimi wound up caring for him back in the early '40s, which is hardly a reveal at all. The movie’s great lesson is, “There’s just no point hating someone you love,” which is spoken by an 18-year-old John, wise before his years, but that wasn’t him. Not then anyway.

The real winner in the battle for John? Director Sam Taylor-Wood, who wound up marrying her leading man, 23 years her junior, and changing her name to Sam Taylor-Johnson. She's now directing “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Knows not where it’s going to
To be fair, I would’ve killed for this movie 35 years ago. I was latching onto anything Beatlesish back then. Classmates were all into REO Speedwagon or the Knack, and I was all about the Beatles. I remember how excited I was when “The Birth of the Beatles” came to TV one Friday night. My first SIFF movie was “The Hours and Times,” a short, almost experimental film positing what might’ve happened between John and Brian Epstein during their Barcelona trip in ’63, and I saw “Backbeat,” a 1994 birth movie focusing on Stu Sutcliffe, in the theaters.

They're still not getting it right. “Nowhere Boy” is another forgettable movie about our most unforgettable band.

Posted at 07:34 AM on Saturday February 07, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2009   |   Permalink  

Sunday December 18, 2011

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

WARNING: THE SPOILERS ARE AFOOT

What if the character ‘Sherlock Holmes’ had been an original 21st-century creation of this film—of Guy Ritchie and Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg and (whew) Lion Wigram, as well as Robert Downey, Jr., of course—instead of a 19th-century creation of Sir Athur Conan Doyle? How well would the movie have done with the critics and how well at the box office and how well with moviegoers after they’d plunked down their $10 plus and had a day, a week, a month, a year to mull it over?

I was mulling this over because, after two years of a self-imposed embargo, and as prep for the sequel, I finally watched “Sherlock Holmes” and for the most part Poster for "Sherlock Holmes" (2009)enjoyed myself. It’s well art-directed, Downey, Jr. and Jude Law (Dr. Watson) have great chemistry, Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler) is always a pleasure, and the movie zips. It zips too much for me, of course, and for top critics, whose approval rating wound up at 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, but not too much for moviegoers in general, who spent $209 million on it in the U.S., $524 million worldwide, and who, having mulled it over, have given it a 7.5 rating (out of 10) on IMDb.com—akin, among Downey’s work, to “Wonder Boys,” and better than “Chaplin” (7.3) and “The Soloist” (6.7).

So what would’ve happened if this thing called “Sherlock Holmes” had been an original creation? I think its box office would’ve dropped, but not astronomically (no name recognition but everyone likes a roller coaster ride), its IMDb numbers would gone up (to 7.7 or possibly higher), because its top critics ratings at Rotten Tomatoes would’ve soared. I think the critics would’ve loved it.

“A cerebral roller-coaster ride!”
Peter Rainer
Christian Science Monitor

“A brilliant throwback to the 19th-century battle between magic and science!”
David Edelstein
New York Magazine

“In Sherlock Holmes, we have the first Asperger’s detective.”
Manohla Dargis
The New York Times

But we really can’t play that game. Sherlock Holmes has been an icon for more than a century. You can’t just wipe that away. As much as they tried.

How much did they try? Ritchie, a Brit, is the first man to turn Sherlock Holmes into both an American and a Hollywood action hero.

The real Sherlock Holmes used his mind to solve crimes and mysteries. This one uses his mind, yes, but just as often, maybe more often, his fists. In the opening scene, as a female sacrifice writhes on a table (sexy!), Holmes and Watson take on a roomful of baddies as if they’re Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

The real Sherlock Holmes used the power of deductive reasoning to solve crimes, as does this one. But in the original stories, the evidence was there for us if we wanted to put it together ourselves. We rarely could. (Or I rarely could.) When Holmes did, however, we almost always went, “Of course!” Here, the evidence by which things are deduced is simply told to us after they’ve been deduced. Zip, zip, zip, zip. Get a move on. What’s that? You want to try to solve it? Just munch your popcorn, Einstein. Roller coaster’s pulling out of the station.

The real Sherlock Holmes was a cocaine user and violinist. He compared the brain to an attic—there’s only so much room, so you’d better be careful that what you put up there doesn’t crowd out worthier stuff. He had a smarter brother, Mycroft, and a nemesis, Prof. Moriarty, and a partner, Dr. Watson, who was sharp but not as sharp as Holmes, and he had informants, street kids, called the Baker Street Irregulars. He was a solitary man but found Watson’s help “invaluable”—which, to my 12-year-old ears, associating the prefix “in” with “the opposite of” (ex: “inconceivable”), sounded like the gravest insult when it was really his greatest compliment. He smoked a pipe. He wore a deerstalker cap.

This one? His plucks his violin, bowless, and smokes a pipe, ocassionally, and mentions Mycroft and sniffs some questionable substances. But cocaine and the attic aren’t mentioned, the deerstalker hat isn’t worn, and holy crap is he ever needy. The main personal tension within the film is his pain over Dr. Watson’s impending marriage to Mary (Kelly Reilly). He needs Watson with him whenever the game’s afoot. You get the feeling Irene Adler, Holmes’ love interest, shows up not only because it’s the movies and you need a girl but to quiet suspicions that Holmes might be gay.

My favorite bit was early on. Holmes is in a restaurant waiting for Watson and Mary. The other patrons talk, their cutlery clinks, and the noises intensify until it becomes almost unbearable for Holmes. It seems like Asperger’s. That would’ve been an interesting direction to go in. Of course it would’ve been less lucrative so they dropped it. Too bad. It would make sense of his seclusions. The world is too much with him. The acute senses that help him solve crimes also make it difficult to live in the world.

To the plot! Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, who went on to play every villain in every movie made since) is the illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Rotheram (James Fox), head of a Freemasons-like secret society. Blackwood is responsible for the murder of several women—all writhing, one assumes—captured by Holmes, sentenced to death. But there’s something steely and menacing about him even behind bars or with the hangman’s noose around his neck. A week later, someone sees him rise from the dead. Then he’s killing again—not least his biological father.

Turns out he uses science and chemicals and whatnot (Holmes' wheelhouse) to appear magical and foster fear. He’s a 19th century terrorist. His goal is to take over Parliament and then—perhaps to ensure American audience interest—to reclaim Britain’s former colony across the pond. Amid a lot of running, fighting, explosions, and sniffing substances on his fingertips, Holmes stops him.

All the screenwriters mentioned above earned their pay; we get some fun stuff. There’s a giant Frenchman, Dredger (Robert Maillet), the “Jaws” of his day, whom Holmes must battle twice, and with whom he has the following exchange after Holmes’ weapon proves ineffective:

Dredger: Cours, lapin, cours. (Run, rabbit, run.)
Holmes: Avec plaisir.

Bailed from prison, where he has been regaling criminals with jokes and stories, Holmes has this exchange with the always incompetent Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan):

Lestrade: You know, in another life you’d have made an excellent criminal.
Holmes: And you, sir, an excellent policeman.

I also like this exchange with Watson's fiancee:

Mary: Making these grand assumptions out of tiny details.
Holmes: That’s not quite right, is it? In fact, it’s the little details that are most important.

The filmmakers do the “Batman Begins” thing of saving the iconic villain (Joker/Prof. Moriarty) for the sequel. All tentpole movies do this now. They’re all hoping for a “Dark Knight.” Good luck with that.  

“Sherlock Holmes” is fun but it’s another part of our day-to-day disconnect. It’s a movie about a man of supreme concentration with which we distract ourselves for two hours. That’s the true game and boy is it ever afoot.

Posted at 06:59 AM on Sunday December 18, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2009   |   Permalink  

Wednesday August 31, 2011

Movie Review: Le Concert (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS IN D MINOR

“Le concert” is French, so I assumed refined, about classical music, so I assumed refined again. Plus it was nominated for le meilleur film at the ’09 Cesars. But it’s a rather broad comedy about a group of Russian misfits who pretend to be the Bolshoi Orchestra, and whose concert in Paris looks to be a disaster until they come together and play like a team. It’s basically a misfit baseball movie (“Bad News Bears”; “Major League”), but with Tchaikovsky instead of horsehide.

Poster for "Le Concert" (2009)Andrey Simonovich Filipov (Alexeï Guskov) is the one-time conductor of the Bolshoi Orchestra, who, because of a run-in with Brezhnev in 1980, is now its janitor, bossed around by a bald Khruschevian blowhard. We later find out he has a reputation abroad, not only as a great conductor but as a man of conviction who stood up against anti-Semitism and despotism and suffered for it. He’s the Alexander Solzhenitsyn of conductors! So why is he still schlepping 20 years after the Iron Curtain fell? Why not move to Paris or New York or, hell, Milwaukee? Doesn’t he know his reputation?

For the purposes of this broad comedy, though, he’s still schlepping at the Bolshoi when, in the office of the current director, a fax arrives from the Châtelet Theater in Paris requesting a one-night performance. Filipov, scheming, takes the fax, deletes the corresponding email, and puts together the old team: his right-hand man Sasha (Dmitri Nazarov), a Russian bear of a man; Ivan Gavrilov (Valeriy Barinov), the KGB officer who fingered him, but who is needed for his French language skills and management capabilities; and various Jews (Viktor: Aleksandr Komissarov), Gypsies (Vassili: Anghel Gheorghe) and misfits. A deal with Paris is struck, passports and visas forged, and a gangster/beneficiary found to pay for airfare. Bienvenue a Paris!

Turns out many of the characters have ulterior motives for going: Gavrilov to hook up with the French communist party; Viktor and his son Moïse to sell caviar; and Filipov, most of all, to connect with his soloist for the concert, the beautiful violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Mélanie Laurent), who is the daughter of .... ?

It’s tricky. At first, I thought she was Filipov’s daughter—the result of a liaison with the wife of a friend. That would explain why Jacquet’s handler, Guylène de La Rivière (Miou Miou), initially turns down the offer to play with Filipov. It would also explain why Filipov keeps all of Anne-Marie’s recordings and press clippings and why he gets all moony-eyed around her. It would also explain why he takes her out to dinner and why he is hesitant, initially, to explain why he chose her as his soloist.

He could reply, “Because you are the best.” Instead, when she asks, he launches into the tale of his undoing: how, at the Bolshoi, he had a great Jewish soloist, Lea, with whom he was going to achieve greatness in music, but how they were stopped halfway through a Tchaikovsky concert by Gavrilov for illegally employing Jewish musicians; how he was ruined and how Lea and her husband subsequently denounced Brezhnev and were sent to Siberia, where they died.

What she should say: “I still don’t see what this has to do with me.”

What she says: “You’re nice, but sick, and I refuse to play with you.”

What she’s really saying: “We need some false tension for the last third of the film to go with the false tension of who my parents are. Everyone knows I’ll play with you.”

Intercut with this broad drama are scenes of broad comedy: clashes between noisy, grasping Russians and cultivated French. The Russians disperse, like the satellites of the Soviet Union itself, around Paris, and can’t be bothered to show up for practice even though they’ve never practiced together.

Meanwhile Sasha tells Anne-Marie, over the objections of Guylène, that if she plays for Filipov she may find out who her true parents were. (She’s been told they were scientists or something who died in a plane crash in the Alps.) So she shows up. As does everyone else. Well, Viktor and Moïse turn up late. You know Jews.

Initially, yes, the orchestra sounds like crap, and there are titters from the cultivated French crowd, and exasperation from the stuffy French critic, and worried looks back home, where the concert is being shown live on television. But Gavrilov, the former KGB man, reveals his worth by sacrificing his communist-party commitment to lock the true Bolshoi director, the Khruschevian blowhard, who shows up at the 11th hour, in an underground room; then he, this Godless communist, prays to God that the musicians will come together and make beautiful music.

Which they do. The Tchaikovsky is beautiful, the Châtelet is beautiful, and the filming augments the beauty of each; and through the music, and through Filipov’s impassioned conducting, Anne-Marie realizes her parents were, yes, Lea and her husband, who sacrificed so much; and though she is not reunited with them, though they are still as dead as the parents she thought she had for the first 28 years of her life, she is somehow filled and satisfied and made whole. As is Filipov, who goes on to fame and fortune.

“Le concert” is not a good movie. It’s not even as good as those misfit baseball movies I referenced earlier. The original “Bad News Bears” and “Major League” sketch their secondary characters better, and you see them practicing together, which is why they wind up succeeding. “Bad News Bears” even has the 1970s-era message that it’s about the performance, not the winning, which is a message Hollywood doesn’t send much, or we don’t receive much, anymore. “Le concert” implies you don’t need to practice, just wing it, and maybe with a prayer to God ... voila!

Plus: Why the subterfuge about Anne-Marie’s parents in the first place? Why didn’t Guylène tell her, particularly when she became a musical prodigy, that her parents were Soviet musicians who died heroes’ deaths? Why create and maintain a lie that has less meaning than the truth?

Admittedly, there is something admirable about making classical music accessible to the masses via a broad comedy/drama like this; but that doesn’t make the film meilleur. It doesn’t even make it bon.

Posted at 06:35 AM on Wednesday August 31, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2009   |   Permalink  

Thursday January 27, 2011

Movie Review: Vincere (2009)

AVVERTIMENTO: SPOILERS

Once, in my fiction writing days, I contemplated a story about a character who became famous, after which he would no longer be seen with the third-person omniscient voice. From then on, the reader would only experience him in the third person, and only through a media filter. It would be as if he went into another realm. I suppose that’s how I see the famous: in another realm.

“Vincere,” written and directed by Marco Bellocchio, does something similar but better.

The first half of the movie focuses on the torrid romance between Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and a young, Socialist journalist, Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi), in Milano in the 1910s. They get married, have a child. Then she discovers he’s already married. As he accrues power, she is shunted to the side. Once he becomes prime minister, he disappears from the story. We only experience him through a media filter: in newsreel footage and newspaper photos. It’s as if he disappeared into another realm.

Here’s the “better.” Ida is eventually put into an insane asylum, where she keeps insisting she’s the wife of Benito Mussolini. Initially, since it’s her story we’re watching, we think this is a gross injustice. But at some point we wonder: Wait a minute. Did the first half of the film, that fevered dream, happen? Or did it only happen in her mind? That Mussolini is played by Timi as a young man and himself in newsreel footage furthers our doubt.

This doubt, I’m willing to concede, could be reserved for people, like myself, unfamiliar with her story. Or his.

That surprised me. I don’t know much about Mussolini, do I? I just know the bald, strutting clown on the balcony, head tilted up, bottom lip pouted, arms akimbo. But that he was once a journalist? And a socialist? And had hair?

Timi plays him intense, with love and sex as distractions from the greater game of politics and power. Mezzogiorno plays her distracted by love and sex. Mussolini becomes her all, her reason for living. She slips him notes in the middle of political protests and sells her business to promote his. This is in 1914. Another scene takes place in 1907, as the police break up a nighttime protest, and she pulls him over to the side, kisses him, strokes the back of his head ... which is covered in blood. It’s like a scene out of a horror movie. Is this where they meet? Or does she first see him during the opening scene, a theological debate between a priest and the young Socialist. Mussolini asks for a watch and then challenges God to strike him dead in five minutes to prove He exists. Mussolini lives. Ergo...

This jumping around from place to place, from year to year, adds to the sense of a fevered dream. How do they hook up again? He always seems there. His voice is thunderous during protests but in private he hardly speaks to her. Is she there? Is he?

And why so many scenes in movie theaters? While watching newsreel footage of the beginnings of the Great War, he cries out “Viva Italia!” and helps cause a riot that mirrors the violence on screen. In the hospital, wounded, he watches Giulio Antamoro’s “Cristus” and probably gets ideas—as if he needed them. She sees ... is it a jungle movie? ... and the kids in the audience act the apes.

Life is mirrored on the screen. Then life becomes the screen. Suddenly he’s prime minister, and at the theater Ida’s view is blocked by all the young Fascists standing and saluting his image, huge now, and one-dimensional. She has to share him with everyone.

First he looks down at her from his balcony with contempt ...

... then she looks up at his image during the newsreels ...

... where everyone stands and salutes ...

... his huge, flickering, one-dimensional image.

Her brother-in-law, with whom she’s staying in Trento, tells her, “Resign yourself.” She says, “I can’t.” She says, with a fierce intensity in her eyes, “I was the first to believe in him ... I’m the mother of his first-born son.”

Attempting to meet Mussolini’s functionary in Trento (she’s reduced to that), she’s beaten by black shirts and interred in a mental hospital in Pergine. She fits right in. “I’m Mussolini’s wife!” she cries. “And I’m Napoleon’s!” another woman answers. Then the stakes become known. “My son is waiting,” she says. Everyone just stares.

The inmates of Pergine.

The nuns of Pergine.

There is no figure more sympathetic than a mother kept from her child, but initially Ida doesn’t have ours. In practical terms, she chooses her lover, who is one of the great criminals of the 20th century, over her son, who is an innocent. She turns totalitarian eyes toward him. The secret police tear him from her sister’s family and place him in a private school, where he can be watched. It’s a heart-rending scene. “Uncle, help!” the boy shouts as the uncle is held back and the car speeds away. Maybe I found it heart-rending because I’m an uncle.

Yet her uncompromising stance is both her tragedy and her triumph. Most of us resign ourselves to the ways of power, even in a democracy, but she doesn’t bend even to Fascism. Powerful people visit her, this powerless inmate, but she has the truth like a fire in her eyes and she’s not willing to give it up. She’s shuttled around. A sympathetic doctor in Venice cautions her to play along, to compromise, so she can get back to her son, then shows her Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” to drive the point home; but even then she’s only willing to go so far. Dragged back to Pergine, sitting before an array of doctors, she seems willing play her part—everyone just wants her to play her part—but at the end she adds, yes, that her son is the first-born child of Benito Mussolini. Negotiations commence. “Senora, just admit you lied.” “Then I would be released?” “In due time.” Pause. “No, no. This questioning ... is a farce.”

There’s a beautiful scene, a Christmas scene, where she climbs an iron fence and sails out letters to her son amid the swirl of snowfall. It’s a fruitless act but it feels like a necessary act. Her circumstances are specific but it seems a universal gesture. We are all trapped in some way. We are all just trying to get word out to someone we love.

“Vincere” is beautifully filmed and powerfully acted but its story is uneven, its ending unsatisfying. Did Bellocchio need to focus on the elements he focused on? Were there no better scenes? Were some cut? We get seven fewer minutes in the States than they got in Italy. What did we miss?

That was my first reaction. But I find myself warming to its unknowability. It feels like it’s trying to communicate something important but I can’t fathom it. It feels like a letter sailed out into the night.

Posted at 06:07 AM on Thursday January 27, 2011 in category Movie Reviews - 2009   |   Permalink  

Tuesday October 19, 2010

Review: John Rabe (2009)

WARNING: SPOILERS

After nearly 75 years of ignoring the topic, two films about the Rape of Nanjing, one Chinese and one German, were released in 2009. Both suffer the same melodramatic impulse. It’s not enough to show atrocity, we have to show uplift. The music has to well. Good people have to march onward even as what they leave behind is so unspeakable as to shatter faith in God.

The Chinese film, “Nanjing! Nanjing!,” is reviewed here.

The German film, “John Rabe,” focuses, no surprise, on the German, John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur of “Seraphine”), a member of the National Socialist Party (NaSi or Nazi), who, at the start, has spent years in Nanjing building a dam for the German company Siemens. It’s his pride and joy.

But it’s December 1937. The Japanese have attacked China and are approaching Nanjing (literally: southern capital), and anyway Rabe’s been recalled by Siemens to Germany. He and his wife are to leave in two days.

Rabe is not exactly a warm figure here. He calls the Chinese “good for nothing” and “children,” he has made no effort to learn their language, and he assumes he’s safe from the Japanese. “After all, they are allies of the Reich,” he says. When Japanese Zeros begin to bomb his compound, he unfurls a large Nazi flag and has everyone hide beneath it. That night he writes in his diary: “The Japanese are indeed good allies. They hold their fire as soon as they see the flag. Very honorable.”

This is one of my favorite parts of the movie. It’s so easy, in historical dramas, to make protagonists more cognizant of future events than their peers, and most filmmakers can’t resist the impulse (see: Michael Corleone in “Godfather Part II”), so it’s nice when they do. The present’s messy and uncertain. We know we’re watching a movie about an unimaginable holocaust, but unimaginable holocausts are unimaginable. No one thinks they’ll live through one today, tomorrow, or next week.

Unfortunately, we begin to get intimations of something warmer about Rabe. He’s certainly a nicer man than the Siemens exec, Werner Fleiss (Mathias Herrmann), who’s been sent to replace him. Fleiss berates Rabe for allowing a portrait of Hitler to be covered up, and for not flying his huge Nazi flag—literally and figuratively. Then he lowers the boom. He’s not just replacing Rabe: Siemens is shutting down the project. All Rabe’s hard work—gone. “The dam,” Rabe tells his wife, “would’ve been my legacy.”

To which we think: Ah, but he’ll have a different legacy.

In a stiff ceremony, Rabe receives an award as “a hero to the Chinese people,” which is greeted with catcalls from a drunk American, Dr. Wilson (Steve Buscemi), who thinks little of the Nazi businessman. He mocks him. “Hero to the Chinese people,” he says sarcastically.

To which we think: Ah, but soon he WILL be a hero to the Chinese people.

As the Japanese move into Nanjing, an international contingent, including Valérie Dupres (Anne Consigny of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), a woman with whom Rabe has a subtle flirtation, attempts to establish a “Safety Zone” for both themselves and their Chinese workers. Against Rabe’s wishes, he’s made its president. The music wells up heroically. A day later, Rabe attempts to flee. At least that’s what the others fear, since they see his name and the name of his wife on the passenger list of the last ship leaving Nanjing. They rush down to the dock. There’s tension. Then they see him and his wife making their way through the crowd. It’s true! He’s leaving!

Except there is no tension. We know he’s not leaving. Otherwise we wouldn’t be watching the movie we’re watching.

His wife gets on the ship, yes, but he stays behind, absurdly holding a bird cage, and standing on the top step of the elevated stairs as the ship pulls away. A moment later, Japanese Zeros strafe the ship. He screams her name. For some reason, in this crowded port, no one is near him. He’s all alone watching this attack. Because they couldn’t afford extras? Because it suggests how alone he is now? It’s China, kids. No one is ever alone.

First he loses his legacy, then he loses his wife. This is a big moment in the film. How does he pick himself up? We don’t know. He just does. You could argue he’s on a suicide mission. Medical supplies, including insulin, are low or nonexistent in the Safety Zone, but he tells no one he has diabetes. He simply channels his German efficiency into helping the Chinese rather than Siemens. Instead of building a system to hold back water, he’s building a system to hold back the Japanese.

The horrors get worse. Executions of Chinese men are rampant. Chinese girls cut their hair to seem like boys to prevent rape. Nanjing 1937 is, in fact, one of the true horrors of he modern age, and we should get a sense of these few foreigners propping up the last bit of sane ground in an insane world. But we don’t. Instead we get subplots. Rabe and Wilson bond over drink. Dupres confesses to Rabe she’s housing a whole platoon of Chinese soldiers in a secret room. Rabe and Wilson and Dr. Georg Rosen (Daniel Bruhl of “Inglourious Basterds”) argue over protocol. There are even intimations of romance between Rosen and a Chinese girl. He leaves her a dress. She puts it on. They talk on a couch. Seriously? We need a love story? Are we that pathetic?

There’s one great scene. While Rabe and the others are hat-in-hand at the Japanese embassy, Rabe’s driver, Chang (Ming Li), walking around his car and smoking, is confronted by an angry Japanese guard, who demands, in Japanese, that he stay in his car. But Chang doesn’t speak Japanese. When Rabe leaves the compound, Chang is nowhere to be seen. He searches for him, yells his name, finds him in a fenced-in area with other Chinese who are in the process of being decapitated. It’s a contest sponsored by a Japanese newspaper: What honorable Japanese soldier can decapitate the most Chinese? Rabe tries to get them to stop, to rescue his driver, but Chang is decapitated before his eyes. A Japanese official later says the driver wasn’t following the rules. “He didn’t stay in the car?” Rabe answers. “His head was cut off!” To compensate him for his loss, Rabe is allowed to choose 20 Chinese to take with him, but this is a Faustian bargain. He has to decide who lives and dies. He does it with German efficiency and something like horror in his eyes.

This scene is a rarity, though. Too often, writer/director Florian Gallenberger gives over to melodrama. Near the end, the Japanese want to clear out the Safety Zone and remove evidence of their atrocities before an international contingent arrives, but Rabe and the others stand in the way; they stand in front of more Chinese who are about to be killed. The Japanese begin to go through with the executions anyway: “Ready... aim...” Then the deus ex machina: the sound of the ship arriving with the international contingency. Rabe wins but the movie loses. God, ex machina or otherwise, should not show up here.

The ending is even worse. Rabe is forced to step down as president of the Safety Zone and return to Germany, and, as he makes his way through a throng of grateful Chinese, they chant his name and shout good-bye: “Tzi jien! Tzi jien!” At the other side of this throng, just outside Nanjing, a walled city, stands his wife, still alive, and he rushes to greet her, and they embrace, and a cheer goes up from the Chinese throng. Yay! The German guy is back with his wife! Yay! We’re all about to die! Yay!

How much more effective, how truer, if, after all the good he’d done, he’d left unceremoniously, as alone as he’d been at the port. What group of people recognizes individual good as it’s being done? Don’t we need historians to piece things together? Hell, I’m even cynical about that proposition.

And cheering him? Wouldn’t the remaining Chinese have clawed at him to get him to stay? Or to take them along? Or to take their babies with him so they wouldn’t be skewered by the Japanese?

Instead the Chinese act as audience for this German couple in a story that is about the atrocities that happened to them.

The Rape of Nanjing is a horrific story worth telling. We just keep telling it wrong.

Posted at 08:21 AM on Tuesday October 19, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2009   |   Permalink  

Wednesday September 08, 2010

Review: “Harry Brown” (2009)

WARNING: MAKE-MY-DAY SPOILERS

Is “Harry Brown” screwing with us?

The movie came to the States last spring, a Brit “Gran Torino,” another “Death Wish” about men near death. Since there were rave reviews, since it garnered a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes, I thought it might be more character study than vigilante film, but it’s not. No one’s a character here. Everyone’s a type. Count them off:

  1. The vigilante
  2. The friend who dies
  3. The ineffectual, sympathetic cop
  4. The ineffectual, grandstanding police captain
  5. Those horrible hoodlums

Screenwriter Gary Young and director Daniel Barber simply move these pieces against various backdrops and let them play out. There’s patience in the pacing, some shots are effective, I liked a few lines, but don’t fool yourself into thinking this is more than a genre film.

Which is why the dialogue at the end comes as a bit of a shock.

It’s in the middle of the grand finale. Because hoodlums rather than single moms or pensioners are now being killed in this particular low-end estate (read: projects), the grandstanding police captain, S.I. Childs (Iain Glen), ignoring the preposterous theory from sympathetic but ineffectual D.I. Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) that the hoodlums are being killed by a pensioner named Harry Brown (Michael Caine), whose best friend, Len (David Bradley) was killed by the same hoodlums a week earlier, decides to storm the estate in grand, militaristic fashion. It sets off a conflagration. The hoodlums, numbering in the single digits for the first three-quarters of the film, swell to dozens, and beat back the cops with Molotov cocktails. Destruction is rampant. The streets are on fire.

Into this chaos arrive Frampton and her ineffectual but unsympathetic partner D.S. Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles). Attacked, left bleeding and injured, Frampton opens her eyes and through the haze sees...could it be?... Harry Brown running towards her. In his 70s (Caine was 76 when the movie was released), with emphysema, and recently self-released from the hospital from a gunshot wound, he somehow carries both cops into the local pub, run by the sympathetic Sid (Liam Cunningham), who, we later find out, is not-so-sympathetic. He’s the uncle of Noel (Ben Drew), one of the main gangbangers, and a nasty piece of work himself. Before the evening is out, he’ll betray Harry and viciously beat him. But he’ll get his.

Before that betrayal, though, Frampton and Harry have a conversation.

Harry is a former, much-decorated Marine, who was once stationed in northern Ireland, and Frampton, despite the chaos surrounding them, pleads in her usual ineffectual way for him to stop taking the law into his own hands:

Frampton: It’s not northern Ireland, Harry.
Harry: No, it’s not. Those people were fighting for something. For a cause. To them out there, this is just entertainment.

He means the gangbangers. But there’s no way the filmmakers didn’t hear the echo: how it could apply, even more so, to us out here, the audience, watching these horrors for fun. In the middle of a genre film, it’s an indictment of the entire genre. It’s the hero of the story telling the audience they’re like the villains.

Wow.

Caine, by the way, is as good as ever. There’s fear in his hooded eyes but also steadiness in his voice and hands. I wouldn’t pay to watch him read the phone book, as the old saying goes (even as phone books have gone), but I’d pay to watch him in a “My Dinner with Andre” type film: Caine, and another man, or woman, shooting the honest shit. Which is to say: I would’ve liked more of the pub conversations between Harry and Len. But they only gave them so much to say. The pieces needed to be moved about.

One camera shot stands out for me. After being informed that Len has been killed by the gangbangers, we cut to a funeral procession of many, many cars. The camera follows the cars for a bit, then allows them to continue on as it alights on Harry and a young priest before an open grave. That funeral procession was for someone else. Len, an old man, just has the one friend and a priest too young to know.

One line of dialogue stands out for me. Harry’s already killed one gangbanger, stabbing him, and now he’s after guns, which are hard to get in England. So he goes to the source, the gangbangers, specifically a house run by the perpetually high Kenny (Joseph Gilgun) and the spooky Stretch (Sean Harris), whose lean body is a cross hatch of scars and tats interrupted by nipple rings. The two take Harry through several hellish rooms, including a greenhouse of, one assumes, pot, and into the back room, where a video plays of Stretch screwing a strung-out girl. That girl is still strung-out on the couch—she seems barely alive—and when Stretch tries to entice Harry with the worst of his culture by offering the girl, Harry tries to entice Stretch with the best of his culture by suggesting they call an ambulance. But there’s no cultural exchange. Stretch gets pissed off by the mere suggestion of a kind act. So when Harry gets the guns he shoots Kenny and then chases Stretch back through the greenhouse, where he lays, with a gut wound, helpless. Earlier, Stretch had Harry in his sites; but he’d also been using his gun as a bong and it misfired, and now Harry has him. Calmly, almost sympathetically, Harry says, “You failed to maintain your weapon, son.”

I love that “son.” So much better than Eastwood’s clenched-teeth “punk.” I love the old-fashion lesson inherent in the line, too. Be ready. Use a thing for what it’s for. Maintain it.

But that’s mostly what I liked about “Harry Brown.” The rest is stupid—and gets stupider in order to maintain the tropes of the vigilante film.

Mortimer is useless. She was cast to be useless. Why else cast Emily Mortimer as a cop? She spends half the movie, mouth agape, unable to argue back against the idiocies of her captain or partner.

The captain is useless. He has a desultory scene just to show how he, and the system, are screwing up. To justify Harry’s actions.

The hoodlums are cackling idiots without a trace of the better angels of our nature. We want them shot. We get our wish. The movie shows us our fears and, one by one, eliminates them.

To do this, Harry almost becomes supernatural. One gangmember, Marky (Jack O’Connell), suddenly finds himself hooded and tied to a chair. How did Harry get him there? Marky then gives up video evidence of Len’s murder. Why doesn’t Harry take it to the police? Instead, Marky, feet and hands bound, but on a short leash (literally), is let loose 10 feet into the graffitied subway where the gangbangers hang out, and where two of the leaders are sloppily making out with young girls. They see Marky but don’t see who’s holding the leash. He’s still in the dark. They pull out their guns. Why doesn’t Harry shoot them first? Why does he toy with them?

To them out there, this is just entertainment.

Yep.

“See the way we're lit? This is a hellish environment, son. 'ellish.”

Posted at 07:21 AM on Wednesday September 08, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2009   |   Permalink  

Tuesday March 02, 2010

Review: “The White Ribbon” (2009)

WARNING: ARE THERE SPOILERS IN A MICHAEL HANEKE FILM?

I should’ve known.

I saw the trailer with its exquisite black-and-white photography, beautiful, rising choir music, and the faces of serious children saying, in German, “Forgive us, father,” “Please forgive us,” all of it interspersed with Palme D’or awards and quotes from critics (“It feels like a classic even as you’re watching it for the first time.” — Scott Foundas, LA WEEKLY), and I thought: “I gotta see this.”

Last Friday I finally got the chance. Five minutes in, I realized, “Oh, wait. This is a Michael Haneke film, isn’t it? Fuck.”

The choir music may rise, in other words, but nothing is uplifting.

Haneke’s films (“Cache,” “La pianiste,” “Le temps du loup,” “Funny Games”) don’t really educate so much as remind. They remind us of two things in particular: “People are brutal” and “You don’t know why.”

Those who agree with that first sentiment often make exceptions. They’ll say, “Well, people may be brutal but children aren’t.” They’ll say, “People are brutal now, but in the past, in a simpler time, we were better.”

To which Haneke replies, “Let them come to ‘Das weisse Bande: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte’” (“The White Ribbon: A German children’s story”).

The film is set in a German village in the year before the Great War. The villagers are known by their occupations (The Farmer) or their relationship to someone with that occupation (The Farmer’s Wife). Only the children have names.

It’s basically a crime mystery in which we guess the criminals at the outset, have that guess strengthened throughout, then leave the theater without an answer. It’s wholly atmospheric, and the atmosphere is one of dread barely held in check. It’s one of tight-assed propriety masking something monstrous.

Our narrator is the School Teacher, voiced as an old man (Ernst Jacobi) but viewed as a young one (Christian Friedel). “It all began, I think,” he says, “with the Doctor’s accident.” He’s still using the language of the village, since the “accident” occurs when the Doctor (Rainer Bock), returning from an afternoon horseride, is cut down by a wire strung across the gate at knee length. The horse is killed, the Doctor goes to the hospital, the wire goes missing.

Village life centers around the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), who owns more than 50 percent of the land and for whom many in the village work, but our village centers around the Pastor (Burghart Klaubner) and his family, particularly his children, particularly the eldest two: Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragas), an upright, handsome girl, with something like defiance in her seemingly respectful stance, and Martin (Leonard Proxauf), a striking boy with bags under his eyes and something like shame oozing from every pore. We first see them together the evening of the doctor’s accident when they face their father’s quiet wrath for being late for dinner. They ask for forgiveness, as in the trailer, and don’t get it. “I don’t know what’s worse: your absence or your coming back,” the Pastor says. He passes sentence—10 strokes of the cane the next evening—and they are made complicit in their punishment. “Do you agree?” the Pastor says. When the punishment comes, the boy is made to get the cane and the whipping occurs behind closed doors. This is a village where things occur behind closed doors.

As the summer progresses, things get worse. The Farmer’s wife dies, a victim of an accident at the Baron’s factory, and when we finally arrive we hear one man counsel another: “Careful, it’s all rotten.” What’s all rotten? Our mind is filled with the worst possible images until Haneke, taking his sweet time, pans over to the rotten wooden floorboards that gave way and ended a life.

But it is all rotten. Things are whispered and people’s minds are filled with the worst possible images. It’s said that the Baron is to blame for the accident, and during harvest celebration one of the Farmer’s sons takes revenge by destroying the Baron’s cabbage patch. It’s a clumsy, known event that shames the Farmer. Later that night, the Baron’s curly-headed son, Sigi (Fion Mutert), goes missing, and is found at 2:30 a.m., hanging upside-down in the barn, whipped and in a state of shock. Later still the barn is burned. What undercurrent, whose undercurrent, is controlling events in this village?

The following year, the Steward’s daughter confesses to the Teacher that she dreamed something horrible will happen to Karli, the mentally disabled son of the Midwife. Has she dreamed it? Or has she been told it? And why? Why would someone do such a thing to Karli? The Midwife, we know, has been having an affair with the Doctor—we see him schtupping her without pleasure upon his return from the hospital—but he ends their relationship brutally, telling her she’s ugly, old, flabby, has bad breath, and when she doesn’t get it, declares, “My God, why don’t you just die?” Shortly after, his son, Gustav (Thibault Sérié), four or five years old, wakens one evening to find his older, teenaged sister, Anna (Roxane Duran), gone from their bedroom. He goes downstairs, scared, calling her name. He opens doors. Behind one of them he finds his father and sister. Her nightgown is pushed up, exposing her thighs. She’s getting her ears pieced, she says. She doesn’t seem scared. Haneke is putting us in the position of the villagers. We just get glimpses behind closed doors. Our minds are filled with the worst possible images.

Eventually something horrible does happen to Karli. He’s tortured, blinded, tied to a tree, and a note is left behind quoting Biblical text about the sins of the parents being visited upon the children, even unto the third or fourth generation. One assumes the Pastor’s children are responsible, as one assumed from the beginning, with Klara the ringleader and Martin the reluctant participant. But why the Midwife’s son? Because of the Midwife’s affair with the Doctor? Because of the rumors that she and the Doctor killed the Doctor’s Wife five years earlier?

The Pastor keeps punishing his children by making them wear ribbons of white, the color of innocence, to remind them of the purity from which they came, but it hardly helps. We see Klara killing the Pastor’s favorite bird and leaving the evidence on his desk. He knows she did it. Or: We suspect greatly that he suspects greatly that she did it. But when the School Teacher comes to him with accusations of their crimes, the Pastor protects what’s his and threatens the School Teacher. By this point, the Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated and the Great War begun. You could say we are unto the third or fourth generation still suffering from those 1914 sins.

Is there any innocence in Haneke’s vision? Any beauty beyond the cinematography? The School Teacher begins a relationship with Eva (Leonie Benesch), who’s working as a nanny, and they have a kind of halting, stammering sweetness together. But the relationship is mostly marked by its difficulties. This is a world where kindness is difficult, brutality easy and total.

Perhaps the most instructive scene occurs between Gustav and Anna at the breakfast nook after the death of the Farmer’s wife. Earlier Gustav had worried about their father’s absence and Anna had assured him he would return. Remember when you got sick last winter? Then you got better? It’s like that. But now he asks about death. She tries to explain it. “Does everyone die?” he asks. Yes. “Everyone really? But not you, Anni?” Me, too. “But not Dad.” Yes, Papa. Then he makes the big leap. “Me, too? It has to happen? ... And Mom? Is she dead, too?” Anna couches her answers with the comfort of time, which is actually the enemy. Mom died a long time ago, she says. He, Gustav, won’t die for a long time. But Gustav is making the connection all of us make, and that may mark the true end of innocence and the true beginning of brutality: the knowledge, which we carry all of our lives, that everyone and everything, including us, dies. And he angrily sweeps the dishes onto the floor. It’s a great scene.

If “The White Ribbon” sounds like an interesting film, it is. It’s interesting to write about, interesting to talk about, but less interesting to watch. It’s not that I disagree with Haneke’s vision, I merely think it’s devoid of light. He’s incomplete. What he's missing is a glimmer of anything that makes life worth living. He’s a child angrily sweeping the dishes onto the floor.

“Bitte verzeihen Sie.”

Posted at 06:43 AM on Tuesday March 02, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2009   |   Permalink  

Monday February 22, 2010

Review: “The Last Station” (2009)

WARNING: WAR AND SPOILERS

It’s odd scribbling critics’ notes while watching Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station,” which is based upon Jay Pirini’s novel on the last days of Leo Tolstoy, since several characters on screen are also taking notes and it’s not exactly positive. More like the scuttling of rats. You want to apologize to other audience members for doing what you’re doing. I’m not a bad person; I’m just a critic.

I was never a Tolstoyan in believing exactly what he believed, or going through the crises he went through, but for a time, in my early twenties, I read him thoroughly and wholeheartedly. Not only was he one of the great 19th century writers but his writing gave birth to the better part of the 20th century: the non-violent movements of Gandhi and King. He’s so identified with the 19th century, in fact, that it’s startling to see the date at the beginning of the movie: 1910. Did Tolstoy really live that long? He did. Long enough to be filmed at Yasnaya Polyana, the estate where he was born, lived and was buried. He died elsewhere. But I’m getting ahead.

The movie opens with that most awful of 20th-century encounters: the job interview. Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is being interviewed by Vladimir Chertkov (a perhaps-too-smarmy Paul Giamatti) about becoming private secretary to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Valentin is a Tolstoyan through and through. He’s both vegetarian and celibate, he says. He’s read Tolstoy’s philosophy and wants to live it completely—which is to say: narrowly. He’s been shown the path and wants to stay on that path, and no other, and when he gets the job he tears up from joy, and afterwards continually breathes out from repressed joy, scarcely believing his luck, even though Chertkov makes it apparent that he’s hiring not just a secretary but a spy. He warns Valentin that the Tolstoyan movement has many, many enemies and lists them off: the Russian Orthodox Church, the Tsar’s police, and the Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), Tolstoy’s wife. This last one is key. He gives Valentin a diary. “Write. Everything. Down,” he says.

Valentin has the peculiar (and dramatically facile) habit of sneezing whenever he’s nervous, and at Yasnaya, which is divided between a commune of workers and the estate of the Tolstoys, he sneezes a lot. At the commune, where he sleeps, he meets a 20th century girl chopping wood, Masha (Kerry Condon), who stares at him boldly, amusedly, and not without interest, and encourages him to speak his mind, despite Sergeyenko (Patrick Kennedy), the tight-assed man running the place. “This is a place of freedom,” Sergeyenko says after listing the rules. “We are all equals here,” he says without joy.

At the estate, where Valentin works, he’s greeted by another woman, yelling down at him from the second floor. “You!” she says. So much for equality. This is Tolstoy’s daughter, Sasha (Ann-Marie Duff), who, after he apologizes and sneezes his way into an explanation for his being, tells him to wait in the library. Nothing, of course, could make him happier. Tolstoy’s library! Tolstoy’s books and papers! Then Tolstoy himself arrives, welcomes him, engages him, causes him to cry with happiness. “I am no one and you are Lev Tolstoy,“ Valentin says. ”And you ask me about my work.“ As do all great men. It may be the definition of great men.

Yasnaya is not only divided between workers’ estate and the Tolstoy's estate but between those who believe in the movement (and see Tolstoy as a prophet), and those who are less enamored of equality and fraternity (and see him as a man). The former group includes daughter Sasha; Dushan the doctor (John Sessions), forever scribbling in his notebook; and the initially absent Chertkov, under house arrest elsewhere. The latter group includes, well, the Countess. Tolstoy is caught between groups. Our man, our eyes, Valentin, intellectually sides with the movement but has an open heart. It’s what saves him from the absolutism of the others.

Mirren, by the way, is amazing: annoying yet sympathetic, haughty yet fragile, comic yet tragic. She’s afraid her husband will sign away the copyrights to his work (which he does); she’s afraid that he’s moving away from her (which he is), so she clings, cajoles, seduces. She upbraids him for dressing like a man who tends sheep, then calls herself “his little chicken” and calls him “her big cock” and gets him to crow happily in bed. She reminds him that she bore him 13 children and wrote out “War and Peace” six times and how could he betray her like this? With Valentin she’s equally blunt, telling him he’s “rather handsome in a sort of peculiar way.”. She asks him, while they walk, if he’s a virgin, and when he stutters and sneezes and begins to quote Tolstoy to her, she says breezily, “You know, when he was your age he was whoring in the Caucasus.” Then she gives him a diary and tells him to write down what he sees. “What. You. See,” she says.

Valentin goes for walks with Tolstoy, too, and when Tolstoy asks him the deep questions of life, Valentin quotes Tolstoy to Tolstoy, which is the last thing Tolstoy wants. “I know what I say,” he says pleasantly, “but what do you say?” Valentin admits he doesn’t know. Tolstoy replies, with a touch of helplessness, “Neither do I.” It’s a poignant scene.

Things come to a head (a headier head) when Chertkov is released from house arrest and arrives at Yasnaya. From outside he greets his nemesis, the Countess, who’s on the second-floor balcony:

Chertkov: I’m happy to see you.
Countess: And I’m happy to make you happy.
Chertkov (wearing the tightest of smiles): Ha ha ha ha.

But the tighter she tries to hold onto Tolstoy the more he slips away from her. Meanwhile Valentin is the passive and nervous and then joyful recipient of the advances of Masha, who, like in an adolescent male fantasy, comes to his room at night, silently climbs atop him, and removes her gown. Basically she knocks him off his narrow path and widens his world. Condon, mousy in the HBO series “Rome,” where she played Octavia, the innocent daughter of the villainess, Atia, is stunningly sexy here. Bravo for boldness. McAvoy is also a surprise. He was forgettable to me in “Last King” and “Atonement,” for which he won raves (and BAFTA nominations), and unforgettable here, where every emotion reads visibly, humanly on his face. (Put it this way: He didn’t need the sneeze—except for comic effect.) Yet no one’s mentioning him and the awards season has already passed him by. So it goes.

“The Last Station” is straightforward, enjoyable storytelling, with great performances, that is, on a personal level, whollly evocative. I kept thinking of the last chapter of Philip Roth's near-perfect novella “The Ghost Writer,” entitled Married to Tolstoy," on the difficulties of living with a writer. As Tolstoy gets more and more fed up with his wife, threatening to leave her and Yasnaya Polyana, I also flashed back to my college roommate, Brian M., reading about this incident and laughing uproariously at the image of Tolstoy basically running away from home at the age of 82. It’s less funny here. He only makes it as far as Astopovo, the last station of the title. One feels, as the world gathers to hear of his death, that he’s simply an old man being used.

All of this takes place exactly 100 years ago. As the 20th century progressed, Tolstoy’s views, via Gandhi and King, became more and more important, even as his station in life, the writer’s station, became less and less so. He was born the year after the French government patented the fountain pen, he was 45 years old when the first typewriter with a QWERTY keyboard became commercially successful, and by the time he died, well, he was one of the most famous men in the world. Writers mattered. As the century progressed it became easier to write, and easier to publish, and so more people did, and so it mattered less. And now we’ve got what we’ve got. The egalitarianism Tolstoy sought has played out in the craft he perfected—to the craft’s detriment. We're all equals here.

Posted at 06:50 AM on Monday February 22, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2009   |   Permalink  

Wednesday February 10, 2010

Review: “Crazy Heart” (2009)

WARNING: UNBUTTONED SPOILERS

Generally in stories about a down-on-his-luck artist attempting redemption through a woman and a comeback through his art, the work of art in question, which everyone in the movie says is great, stunning, worthy of turning a life around, is actually fairly ordinary. In “Crazy Heart,” written and directed by Scott Cooper, the work of art is a country song, “The Weary Kind,” written by Ryan Bingham and produced by T. Bone Burnett. Two things: 1) it’s great, stunning, worthy of turning a life around, and 2) it only turns around the life of the artist, country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), so much. It indicates a direction but it doesn’t necessarily get him home.

Blake, 58, is overweight and a drinker. As the movie begins, the country legend is driving the American Southwest in his ’78 Suburban, Bessie, and playing in dives. Because the first place we see him play is a bowling alley, and he arrives long-haired, dissheveled, bearded and unbuttoned, ordering a drink at the bowling-alley bar, one can’t help but think of Bridge’s most famous character, the Dude from “The Big Lebowski”; but that’s where the similarity ends. The Dude was happy in bowling alleys but Blake takes one look and says aloud to his absent manager, “Jack, you bastard.” He doesn’t get a bar tab (his reputation has preceded him), isn’t interested in rehearsing with his star-struck back-up band (including Ryan Bingham as Tony), and near the end of his set flees the stage to throw up in a back-alley garbage can. That night he sleeps with an aging groupie, one of 20 or so fans who bothered to show up, then he sneaks out of Pueblo, New Mexico. The question for the viewer: Is this bottom?

We find out he hasn’t written a song in three years. He also has a former partner, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who’s a big star, but with whom Blake refuses to play anymore. One assumes bad blood and betrayal.

The next gig is a little better, a real bar, and he arrives mid-afternoon to hear a man playing the piano and playing it well. Blake gives him a nod of compliment and the man returns the favor and then asks for another. His niece is a reporter with the Santa Fe paper. Would he give her an interview?

The niece is Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and they meet cute. For the interview she gives a quick rap on his motel room door and opens it... to find him sitting in a towel and watching chicas on his motel-room TV.

It’s meeting cute but it’s meeting false. Who barges into a stranger’s motel room with hardly a knock? For a journalist, too, her questions are fairly generic, as if she’d done no research at all. Who were your influences? Did you ever want to be anything else? In today’s world of artificial country music, who’s real country? His answers are good, particularly on wanting to be a baseball player until someone threw him a curve ball (“Figured I’d stay with the guitar. Sonuvabitch stayed where it’s supposed to”), but that doesn’t excuse the questions. She also sleeps with her subject, which is a whole other matter.

She becomes, of course, the love interest, and one of the sources of Blake’s redemption, but I was rarely interested in their relationship. It felt icky. Because of the age difference? Because I didn’t quite get what she saw in him or he in her? Because her journalism is questionable? Because I knew he would let her down in some awful way?

His relationship with other people, meanwhile, always intrigued me. He finally lets his manager book him as the opening act for Tommy Sweet, who used to open for him, and one expects an egotistsical, grandstanding upstart. Instead Tommy’s appreciative and admiring of his former mentor. All this time, the problem had been Blake and his pride, his old lion’s pride, which is still on display when Tommy sneaks onstage, to squeals from the crowd, 12,000-strong, during Blake’s opening number to sing a duet with the legend. There’s a frozen disapproval in Blake’s face and body language, and there are subtle tensions when the two talk backstage, and all of that is a joy to watch because it feels real; because it makes you wonder about both men. Hell, I liked the back-and-forth Blake has with the sound-man, Bear, during the sound check:

Blake: Bear, Bear, Bear! I need kick and snare, turn down the damn guitar, you’re drowning out the lyrics.
Bear: Mix is good, man. You can’t hear what I’m hearing out here.
Blake: Bear, I’m an old man, I get grumpy. Humor me.

Tommy wants a longer tour, and songs, from his former partner, and after Blake gets into a car accident and winds up recuperating at Jean’s place, he begins to write the one that will become “The Weary Kind.” In lesser films he’d realize what he has and keep it and record it for himself and become a star again (that, in fact, is the story the trailer implies). In this film, he realizes what he has and mails it off to Tommy anyway, who, down the road, will make it a hit, which will make Blake a little sum of money. There’s a matter-of-factness to all this. It’s how life is.

Pride, though, was only one thing holding Blake back. The other was drink. Artistically he may have hit bottom at that bowling alley in Pueblo, but alcoholics have deeper, harder bottoms. In Santa Fe, Blake takes Jean’s four-year-old son, Buddy (Jack Nation), to the park for the day, and Jean returns to a darkened home. No Buddy. No Bad. She panics for five seconds until they walk in the door, Buddy with stories already spilling out of his mouth, Blake, looking a wreck, assuring her, “Nobody died.” This prefigures a later scene in Houston when Blake loses Buddy in a mall. Blake had a son from a previous relationship, a grown man now and understandably uninterested in his father’s attempts to reconnect with him, whom Blake last saw when he was four. The man has a bad habit of losing four-year-old boys.

Buddy’s found in the mall but Jean is unforgiving and cuts things off with Blake for good. And that, after another bender, is Blake’s bottom.

“Crazy Heart” could be subtitled “The Partial Redemption of a Country Legend.” That’s really all it is. Its appeal lies in the peformances—particularly Bridges, who is both monumental and as ordinary as any day in our lives—and in the details. I like the size of Bridge’s mangled fingers next to Buddy’s. I like how, saying good-bye in Santa Fe, Jean grimaces away from Blake’s alcoholic breath. (“Mustard gas and roses,” Kurt Vonnegut used to call it.) I like the small scene, after he sobers up and after Jean still rejects him, where he’s cleaning his place and finds Buddy’s Superman t-shirt under the bed. He picks up the phone. Then he pauses, sets the phone back down, folds the little boys’ t-shirt in his lap. It’s such a small shirt and that emblem is so big and says so much. Will he mail it back? Will he keep it? We don’t know. We just know he won’t use it as an excuse to inject himself into her life again. It wasn’t easy being Bad, but it’s even harder being decent.

The movie has some false notes but the music doesn’t. The songs this country legend sings are actually good songs:

I used to be somebody
Now I am somebody else
Who I’ll be tomorrow
Is anybody’s guess

They’re as matter-of-fact and down-to-earth as the movie, which almost didn’t get distribution. Now it’s out in a handful of theaters making a little sum of money. It’s how life is.

Posted at 07:21 AM on Wednesday February 10, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2009   |   Permalink  

Monday February 08, 2010

Review: “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)

WARNING: CUSSIN' SPOILERS

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is a joy to watch because it’s both a Wes Anderson movie and a George Clooney vehicle.

Its Wes Andersonness is obvious. It gives us deadpan humor, father-son conflict, characters associated with one absurd and outdated mode of dress. It tosses up chapter titles (“The Go-For-Broke Mission”) and tosses in a tinkly soundtrack and bouncy-but-obscure, British-invasion-era music (“Let Her Dance” by Bobby Fuller Four). In 2007 I wrote the following about the essential Wes Anderson lesson: Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution. That’s still true for his films—whether we’re talking Fischers, Tenenbaums and Zissous or foxes, badgers and weasels.

Where “Fox” differs from a typical Wes Anderson movie is in its hero. Anderson’s protagonists generally pretend to be something they’re not: great playwrights, great oceanographers, caring patriarchs. Eventually their true nature is revealed and they’re excluded from where they want to be. Only in returning, chastened and wiser, do they become the very thing they were pretending to be.

The movement for Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is the opposite. His persona is basically the George Clooney persona—the hyper-articulate, know-it-all whose charm resides in not always knowing it all but mustering through with grace and style anyway—and this persona, Mr. Fox’s persona, hardly changes during the course of the movie. For a time he denies his true nature, but he does so for others, not himself, and it’s a mere blip of screentime. It’s not the Anderson cycle of pretense/exclusion/genuineness. It’s the Clooney promise: Get on board, boys, we’re going for a ride!

The reason Mr. Fox is forced to deny his true nature is the reason many of us are forced to deny our true natures: he starts a family. One moment he and his wife are stealing squabs from a nearby farm, the next they’re trapped by a cage. Before they can escape, Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) announces she’s pregnant, and elicits a promise from Mr. Fox that he’ll settle down and never steal squabs and chickens and the like again.

Out of one trap and into another.

For two years (12 fox years, we’re told), Mr. Fox works as a newspaperman and lives with Mrs. Fox and their son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), in a comfortable hole, until one day he says he’s tired of living in their comfortable hole. He’s got his eye on a tree that they can’t afford. Except he really wants the tree because of it overlooks Boggis, Bunce and Bean, three farms producing, in order, chickens, turkey and cider, and run by “three of the meanest, nastiest, ugliest farmers in the valley,” according to Fox’s lawyer, Badger (Bill Murray), who counsels against purchase. Fox ignores him. He tells himself he’s after one last job, by which he means three last jobs, one for each farm. For the first two he drags along Kylie, the passive, not-bright, handyman opossum (Wallace Wolodarsky), who is essentially the Pagoda of this film, and both jobs go off, give or take an electric fence, without a hitch.

For the final job, at Bean’s cider farm, Ash tries to tag along but is sent home; instead Fox relies on Ash’s cousin and rival, Kristofferson Silverfox (Eric Anderson), a meditating, martial-arts-training natural athlete who is staying with the family. Again, give or take a rat guard (Willem Dafoe), and the appearance of the very masculine-looking Mrs. Bean (Helen McCrory), the job goes off without a hitch. The problem: of the three nasty farmers, Bean (Michael Gambon, brilliant here) is the nastiest of the bunch. Also the smartest. And he organizes Boggis and Bunce into bringing the fight to Mr. Fox.

Thus begins a war of escalation. First they attempt to shoot Mr. Fox but succeed only in blowing off his tail (which Bean wears as a tie); then they destroy the Fox’s tree home with bulldozers (shades of “Avatar”!), but discover the Foxes have dug down to safety. When they try to dig them out, the Foxes simply dig deeper, and further, and eventually back into the Boggis, Bunce and Bean farms, from which they steal everything. By this time, other animals have been swept up in the war, and they all gather at a large underground dining table to celebrate. But just as Mr. Fox is delivering his toast of triumph, a rumble is heard. The rumble of cider. They’re being flooded out of their homes and into a sewer, from which there appears no escape.

But there is an escape. Earlier, when Mrs. Fox learned of her husband’s treachery, we got the following dialogue:

Mrs. Fox: Why did you lie to me?
Mr. Fox: Because I’m a wild animal.

Meanwhile, Ash, who likes to wear a cape, and who doesn’t even have a proper bandit mask but uses a reconstituted tube sock, is dealing with others’ perceptions, and his own perception, of his difference.

And that’s their salvation. They’re all wild animals and they’re all different. Mr. Fox, calling everyone by their Latin names (Oryctolagus Cuniculus! Talpa Europea!), uses the talents of each species for their final plan of attack, their final salvation. Exclusion isn’t necessarily the problem but inclusion is almost always the solution.

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” is delightful on many levels—it’s funny, quirky, tender, adventurous—but it resonates long after you leave the theater for the following reason. The convention of children’s stories is to have wild animals talk, wear clothes, and engage in human professions, and “Mr. Fox” certainly adopts those conventions. Then it upends them by having the wild animals realize the absurdity of not being what they are: wild animals. Wes Anderson, in other words, dresses up his animals as people so the people watching can realize that they, all the lawyers and high school coaches and newspapermen in the audience, are animals. All of us, in small ways, in the clothes we wear or the jobs we have, are denying our true natures. The joy of “Mr. Fox” is that Vulpes Volpes gets to reveal his true nature. The bittersweetness of Homo Sapiens is that, generally, we don’t.

Posted at 06:43 AM on Monday February 08, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2009   |   Permalink  

Monday January 25, 2010

Review: “Precious” (2009)

WARNING: GIFT-OF-THE-UNIVERSE SPOILERS

“Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” is set in Harlem in the 1980s, a hopeless period for both race relations and social progress in America. If the 1960s was the two steps forward, the 1980s was the one step back. One image from the period, and the film, is particularly weighted with hopelessness to me. With all of the crime in the streets, with all of the crime in the homes, there in the classroom is a poster of McGruff the Crime Dog, a cartoon hound in a trenchcoat, urging kids to “Take a bite out of crime.” How exactly? By speaking up? By getting an adult? And if the adult is the crime? McGruff is a harbinger of the very thing he fights. He shows up only where crime is rampant and offers nothing. He’s a symbol of impotence.

He’s also a symbol of one of the three universes of “Precious.” All of them are depressing.

The first and worst universe is the brutal, everyday world that Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) lives in. She’s 16, fat, black, illiterate. Sexually abused by her absentee father since age 3, she’s now pregnant with his second child. The first child, who has developmental problems, is being raised by her grandmother, while her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), lives off welfare, watches TV all day, and is emotionally and physically abusive to Precious. She tears down Precious every day with a stream of verbal abuse; if Precious is unresponsive she resorts to the physical kind. Precious is also attacked in the streets and ignored in the schools. There is nowhere she is safe.

Except in the second universe, her fantasy universe, where she often goes after being physically abused. Here she wears feather boas and is photographed on red carpets. She’s on BET and magazine covers. She’s beautiful, important, and loved by a light-skinned boyfriend, but the universe is depressing for being so distant from her reality, and for being a slightly more glamorous version of the empty, cheesy shows her mother watches. Who would even want to live in this universe? Only someone whose reality is the first universe.

The third universe is the solution. When administrators at her public high school discover she’s pregnant with her second child, most likely sexually and physically abused, and virtually illiterate, they release her to a special program in an alternative school, “Each One, Teach One,” which is run out of the 11th floor of the Hotel Theresa. Her intro there is inauspicious. The receptionist puts personal phone calls ahead of administrative duties, doesn’t even expect Precious (though there’s hardly a clog of humanity at the place), and needs copies of a phone bill and her mother’s budget to complete the bureaucratic process. Precious’ second day begins even worse. She needs money for food but her mother is masturbating in bed and ignores her. So Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken and eats most of it on the way to school, before throwing it back up in a school garbage can beneath a sign reading: “Try for a better future.” There are such self-esteem signs all over the school. One reads: “Determination.” In another, the following words form a circle: “feeling good about yourself will lead to more reasons for” and back to the first word. Plus there’s McGruff. That harbinger of good times.

When Precious finally enters the classroom (via white light?), the feeling-good-about-yourself times continue. The students, five or six girls, are asked by their teacher, who goes by the name Blu Rain (Paula Patton), to talk about something they’re good at. After the movie, walking down Broadway on Capitol Hill, my girlfriend Patricia commented with amazement on how “all of those girls were so different.” One’s a tough Chicana, one’s a lesbian, one’s from Jamaica, etc. “That’s the point,” I replied flatly. “I know,” she responded, “But...” She liked it. She was caught up in it. I wasn’t. I also wondered about casting. If the classroom was supposed to be feel-good, how did Paula Patton wind up as Ms. Rain? She’s pretty enough to make Halle Berry feel like something the cat dragged in.

And so our first and third universes battle for the soul of Precious. The caring teacher vs. the uncaring mother. One props up, one drags down. “You’re special, Precious.” “You think you’re special, Precious?” Ms. Rain has the students write every day, and the book, “Push,” by Sapphire, is in the first-person, so you get a sense of the progress Precious makes through the writing itself. That might be interesting. On the other hand, it is reminiscent of “The Color Purple,” which was a best-seller, and then a hit movie, a few years before the time “Precious” is set in. Aspects of “Precious” also reminded me of “The Bluest Eye,” Toni Morrison’s first novel, which was published in 1970, and which I read around the time Precious was first walking into that classroom, when Sapphire herself was a remedial reading teacher in Harlem and dealing with girls like Precious every day. I guess every generation needs their version of this story; I guess it’s why it felt old to me.

No, it’s worse. Parts of it feel like a lie. Even as Ms. Rain tells Precious it’s OK to be fat and black (but not illiterate), the good people in the film—Ms. Rain, Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz), and, to a lesser extent, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey)—are thin, good-looking, light-skinned. That’s what good is in this universe. “But you’re still beautiful, Precious.”

The movie’s villain, meanwhile, is fat and black. Mary allows her child to be sexually abused and then blames the child for taking away her man. She’s also an argument against welfare—wasting her life in a small cluttered apartment and watching the worst TV has to offer. There are few cinematic moments more depressing than Mary doing a bump-and-grind while smoking and watching Florence Henderson give clues on “$100,000 Pyramid.” The horror of our culture is in that moment. The waste... The waste...

Mo’Nique is smart enough to play Mary as the victim—that’s how she sees herself. It’s a great performance and Mo’Nique deserves her accolades. Put it this way: I believed Mary. I believed Ms. Weiss, too. She’s fighting the good fight but she also has the tired, thousand-yard stare of the career bureaucrat. With the world the way it is, you can only care so much. After her appointment with Precious, she has one with, say, Angela, and another with Bettina, and Clarice, and on and on until five o’clock, at which point she gets to punch out and grab a drink, and then do it all again tomorrow. Five days a week, 52 weeks a year. With that schedule, how much emotion do you put into your 10:15? Carey plays her right. But Ms. Rain? She cares. Deeply. Particularly about Precious. Because Precious is precious? No, because we’re watching Precious’ story rather than Rita’s story, or Rhonda’s or Jermaine’s or Joann’s or Consuelo’s. Ms. Rain has to care more about her because we care more about her. “Your baby loves you,” she tells Precious. “I love you.” In a gritty, horrific story, Ms. Rain is wish-fulfillment. That’s why I didn’t believe her. Or the movie.

Posted at 06:30 AM on Monday January 25, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2009   |   Permalink  
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