February 28, 2014

The Butler

Surely we all know that the words "inspired by a true story" are themselves a kind of fiction when it comes to the movies. And yet many of us take things in movies as though they were courtroom documents, or "as trustworthy as the world almanac," to quote Bette Davis's character in All About Eve. Movies, of course, are master manipulators. That's one of their basic charms, and I generally don't hold their fudging against them in the slightest. But Hollywood's penchant for revising history does mean that viewers have to be able to separate fact from fiction, and it's rather bewildering that some people continue to accept movies as reliable sources. When it comes to details, they usually aren't. They're product designed to elicit emotions from our hearts and minds and money from our wallets. But in terms of getting the mood of a period and having it register in our minds, movies can be quite powerful and accurate. It is in this way that I think The Butler generally succeeds, especially where it lacks in getting certain details right. (This is to say that the screenwriters of The Butler deliberately altered things for their own dramatic purposes; not that they were bad historians.)

The Butler is hugely entertaining for what it is: a big movie with big emotions that tells a sweeping narrative of the last fifty years of American public life, looking specifically at the Civil Rights movement and a humble butler who serves seven U.S. presidents. His name in the movie is Cecil Gaines (the real man was named Eugene Allen), and he's played by Forest Whitaker. Whitaker plays Cecil with grace and patience. Enough grace and patience that his son sort of rebels, joining with the ranks of Martin Luther King and then later the Black Panthers because he feels that immediate action--not quiet reserve--is needed to facilitate cultural change.

Just a few mythbusters and then I'll move away from my "based on a true story" rant. Eugene Allen had one son, not two, and his son was neither a civil rights activist like the elder son in the movie nor a Vietnam vet like the younger one. Allen also started working at the Whitehouse earlier than the movie claims (but not as a butler, and not as head butler until 1981, five years before his retirement in 1986, which is one of the few correct claims the movie makes.) One of the most calculating changes that the filmmakers make comes in the son, Louis, who happens to be present during virtually every significant moment in the Civil Rights movement, including the Freedom Riders bus ride through Alabama (the one where they're attacked by a seething mob of KKK and non-KKK racist nutjobs) and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Then he even becomes a Black Panther (briefly). It seemed too Forrest Gump-ish to me. (Forrest, you remember, seemed to witness an incredulous number of cultural and historical moments.)

The film very obviously tries to juxtapose Cecil Gaines--who does what is expected of him very well, and considers this a subtle contribution to the march for equality--and his son Louis--who's fed up with being subservient to snooty white racists and wants change. It allows the movie to have some kick to it, even if this kind of plotting feels too convenient. Moreover, the differences between the two men really put Forest Whitaker in the background of his own movie. His is not the face I see as I think about The Butler. I see Louis, I see the cartoonish representations of the U.S. Presidents (from Eisenhower to Reagan, but skipping Ford and Carter), and I see Oprah.  (There is, however, real passion and command inside of Forest Whitaker, and he's able to get some of that out in the second half of the movie.) Given the film's colorful array of characters, it's really an unfair disadvantage.

Those presidents are something else. Robin Williams plays Eisenhower; James Marsden, JFK; Liev Schreiber, LBJ, John Cusack, Nixon; and Alan Rickman, Reagan. (Jane Fonda also makes a cameo appearance as Nancy Reagan.) They're quite an impressive group of actors, and even if their impressions don't always work, they're fascinatingly gauche and/or dead-on. Marsden is surprisingly good as JFK; Rickman really nails Reagan; and Cusack is creepily off-kilter yet somehow right as Nixon. (There's also the added pleasure of seeing LBJ scream at his subjects while on the toilet, with the bathroom door wide open.)

And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the performance of Oprah Winfrey as Gloria Gaines, Cecil's devoted wife. Oprah's performance is wonderful, and makes you wish she did more movies. Gloria is a boozing but still loving wife, and Oprah's performance brings a lot of humor to the movie that it desperately needs. The Butler isn't a downer (although it's infuriating at times to see how awful black people were treated at this time, and may still be treated today in certain circles), but it is more than a bit self-important. Oprah, who often comes off as self-important when she's giving away free cars to every person in her audience, here appears grounded and real in a way that is vital to the success of this movie. She's also a great balance to the measured, polite character of Cecil. Gloria doesn't care about pleasing people. Yet she's not brash or obnoxious, and her support of her husband is quite touching at times.

Viewers are likely to walk away from The Butler with a sugar-coated lie in their heads. Now that we've got a black president, it's all good. Racism against black people in America is over. (The movie doesn't do anything to counter this.) And what's more, The Butler has spent two hours showing us the general failings of U.S. presidents, only to rejoice in a kind of enchanted, unrealistic way at the election of a black one. President Obama's election was a big deal, of course, in a symbolic way, but the reality of being a president is a lot more complicated and unflattering for anyone who's tasked with the job. (And for the record, it's always been this way. Presidents rarely get something done quickly, for better or worse.) The Butler isn't interested in showing us that. I'm content with the movie as it is, but I worry that some of its sloppiness will eventually be used in classrooms as pure fact.

February 23, 2014

Children of Men

Children of Men (2006), directed by Alfonso Cuarón and based on the novel by P.D. James, is a murky slog through the wastelands of dystopian future England, which, in the year 2027, is the only country that hasn't completely collapsed due to war and disease. The planet is also enduring a new kind of crisis: infertility. No babies have been born for nearly twenty years, so when a radical group of activists finds a pregnant Fuji woman named Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), her safe transport to a humanist group--where her baby won't be exploited as some kind of marvelous new savior--becomes of vital importance. Enter Clive Owen, a British government worker who has ties with the radical group's leader, Julian (played by Julianne Moore). He's enlisted to give them some help in getting papers for Kee so that she can get where she needs to go. Of course, there are complications.

This is a movie full of dreary--and mostly unoriginal--predictions about the future. Cuarón lets loose with the mayhem, and uses impressive camera-work to exhibit the constant chaos of bombs going off, guns firing, bodies broken by glass and bullets and crumbling buildings, towns destroyed, and thick clouds of fog and smoke obscuring the vision of the protagonists. It's a world that becomes increasingly unwatchable as the movie winds on.

Dystopian fiction isn't exactly a new thing, but it's certainly experienced a new wave of enthusiasm in the last ten years or so. The British experienced a parallel kind of anxiety about their security at the turn of the twentieth century, which gave us Dracula, The Time Machine, and lots of other literature about the deterioration--social, moral, and biological--of society. H.G. Wells imagined England in somewhat more banal, yet far more accurate, terms in Tono-Bungay (1909), which chronicled the disruptions in the English social structure and the rise of urban civilizations. People were afraid of all the changes that were happening, which of course preceded the very big and grim change affected by World War I.

It's the same recipe bubbling up now in 2014. We live in a world of uncertainties, and the grim futuristic novels and books are glutting the market to exploit/ameliorate/fuel that anxiety. Children of Men is simply a more artful and adult version of the same thing young people love about The Hunger Games: this is a world where man's brutality has been unleashed in an uninhibited and obvious fashion, and this kind of sheer inhumanity has always grabbed people's attention. Perhaps people respond to these kinds of movies because they want confirmation that we're not so brutal here and now. Things may be bad, but they aren't that bad at least. But the people in Children of Men have the news on 24/7, which isn't much different from people now who always have the television tuned to Fox News or CNN, which are more Orwellian than people want to believe. They're the ones who feed the dystopian imaginations, and give credence to movies like Children of Men.

I found it too depressing and chaotic to care about Children of Men, and what's more, frustrating, much like Caurón's Gravity frustrated me. Here there were little things--the jarring sound of someone pounding on a door and Clive Owen taking forever to open it; that stupid little yippy dog sniffing the blanket covering the baby, whose identity Kee is trying to keep secret; the way the characters plod through bomb-riddled streets and stairways and are constantly impeded by some irritating obstruction. I suppose this is Caurón's attempt to be realistic, but it pulled me out of the movie and built up a kind of resistance in me. After a while, all patience was gone.

Clive Owen is a likable actor, and his presence bolsters Children of Men considerably. But he--like everyone in this movie--is a function of the plot, not a real character. We care about his safety mainly because he's Clive Owen. You can imagine that the author of the novel, P.D. James, had the idea about the infertility first." Suppose women just stopped being able to give birth?" Obviously, what once mattered to society would no longer matter. But the problem with these kinds of conceits is that by definition they make characters incidental and subordinate to the story. Everything must flow from that little nucleus of an idea about infertility, and while it's an interesting idea, it's very Twilight Zone-y, except Children of Men is bigger and glossier and gritter than The Twilight Zone.

Michael Caine has a small part as an aging hippy with John Lennon's hair--if Lennon had lived long enough to turn grey--and glasses. He tries very obviously to be a quirky old man, and his comic relief never really works. It always seems forced and naively at odds with the rest of the movie's grim march toward a kind of shriveled, bleak self-importance. With five writers, you'd expect something better from Children of Men. Or maybe that was the trouble. Along with the director, the script was pounded out by Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby. With Chiwetel Ejiofor, Pam Ferris, and Danny Huston.

February 20, 2014

Ed Wood

Oh dear Lord in Heaven. If you're tired of watching Johnny Depp play a wise-cracking pirate or a freaky candy factory owner or a cheeseball 18th-century vampire with lots of money or a wise-cracking freaky cheeseball something else, go back and watch Tim Burton's Ed Wood from 1994. (Also, if you feel Tim Burton has lost his touch, this movie may just perk up your mood.) Yes it's a weird movie, true to the Burton-Depp collaborations, but it's also a delightful one, a faux-morbid chronicle of the infamous career of cult filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr., who's infamous as the director of some of the worst movies ever made, including the transvestite trash-gem Glen or Glenda? and the outer-space-invasion spectacular Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Ed Wood is probably one of the best movies about the movie-making business. It's certainly one of the only ones that doesn't genuflect with banal reverence toward Hollywood. Instead of getting some high-minded, self-congratulatory glamor parade, we're treated to the ersatz side of the movie-making business: the world of not just deferred dreams, but squandered dreams, where a guy with too much enthusiasm and too little talent will work his heart out and still struggle to pay the lab fees for his own films. (Thus one of Wood's movies, Night of the Ghouls, sat unreleased and virtually lost to curio-aficionados for years and years.) Somehow, Tim Burton prevents Ed Wood from being a tragic figure: the movie successfully walks the line of sympathy and ridicule, never partaking in either too carelessly. It revels in his sheer, exuberant love of the medium, and I feel like it wants Ed Wood to make a successful movie, even though he never does.

Leave it to Tim Burton to try and do justice to the man who was arguably the worst director in history. (John Waters is the only other director I'd like to see take a crack at the career of Ed Wood.) If you appreciate the deliciousness of failure, you'll find a kindred spirit in Ed Wood. Johnny Depp plays him with wide-eyed, gleeful aplomb, and taps into the intriguing inner-world of a man who loved two things: making shitty movies (although he didn't seem to think they were shitty) and wearing women's clothes, particularly argyle sweaters. (In the movie, Ed swears he isn't gay, just a really uninhibited hetero.) This has to be one of Depp's most engaging and fun performances. In so many of his more recent movies, he plays these cartoonish characters who stand in front of the camera and crack jokes. Luckily, Johnny Depp is still in great shape and can move around convincingly, or he'd really be in trouble. But if you've neglected to go back and re-visit some of his older work, I encourage you to do so. You'll see the Johnny Depp we all fell in love with: the actor who made the grotesque lovable and beautiful and funny.

Depp invests such heart into Edward D. Wood, Jr. that the movie's admittedly cynical (at times) tone is much easier to take. The movie does have a bitter side, much of it expressed through the brilliant performance of Martin Landau, as an aging Bela Lugosi. (Wood meets Lugosi by chance, and the two strike up a friendship that leads to collaborative work on several films, ultimately proving to be both the comeback and the swan song of the legendary ham.) With Bela we get a truly depressing window into the dark side of Hollywood, in which older stars have faded completely from view. Landau's performance (for which he earned an Oscar) recalls the mad pathos of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and in fact Ed Wood lives on the same edges as Sunset: it's Hollywood in decay, black-and-white, vaguely noirish, out of money, and forgotten by audiences who have long ago moved onto the next big thing.

But ultimately Ed Wood is a loving, blissed-out tribute to sheer audacious zeal and the irony of failure. How could you not love a movie like that? The supporting cast is like a gaggle of amusing and uniquely scary figures in a wax museum or a carnival house of horrors. Ed Wood doesn't have the zany madness of Beetle Juice, but in a way, it is Tim Burton's Citizen Kane. (Orson Welles, incidentally, shows up in a chance meeting with Wood. He's played here by Vincent D'Onofrio.) With Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Juliet Landau, Jeffrey Jones, G.d. Spradlin, Lisa Marie, and Bill Murray.

February 19, 2014

The Thing From Another World

It may be asking too much to expect horror and scifi movies to be scary fifty-plus years later, so I think the real litmus test for the longevity of films in those genres is whether or not they can still show audiences a good time. (Yes, there are exceptions: some horror films from the 1930s and 40s have a striking atmosphere that remains creepy even if the movies themselves are dated.) The Thing From Another World (1951) is a prime example. It's a totally fun movie about an Arctic outfit that discovers an alien man frozen in the ice. Of course, they cut him out with axes and bring him back to their quarters so that he can thaw out and wreak havoc. The material comes from a novel called Who Goes There? by John Campbell, and it was adapted for the screen by Charles Lederer (although Ben Hecht and producer Howard Hawks apparently worked on the script as well).

The original The Thing is still a superior version of this story because it is what it is: just a fun popcorn movie that draws in enough real anxiety (the fear of monsters both at home and abroad is always in the atmosphere of this movie) and enough humor to balance that anxiety. It's probably the most compact, smart, and fun example of the alien invasion movies of its time period (alongside Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Plus, it has that wonderful Howard Hawks-ish banter between the characters. (He purportedly directed much of the film, although Christian Nyby was officially behind the directorial reins.) They're played by a remarkably game cast of B-movie actors, including Kenneth Tobey as the military captain called upon to enlist the scientists, Margaret Sheridan as the sexy, intelligent secretary, Robert Cornthwaite as the scientist who sees their discovery as a monumental moment in human history, and Douglas Spencer as the wiry, acerbic, but good-natured newspaperman who's desperate for a story.

There's something so delightful about the way The Thing doesn't try and put the screws on its audience. The actors never take themselves or the material too seriously, and the production team makes good use of that old technique of not revealing your monster too soon. Sure he looks a bit hokey now, but James Arness's tall, shambling monstrosity is strangely impressive and foreboding and even tragic, much like Frankenstein's monster. (I have to think that the make-up effects people had that character in mind when designing him.) This is a movie that just wants us to have fun. It puts me in such a good mood when movies want this.

It's interesting to see how many later horror films borrowed from The Thing. George Romero certainly had it in mind when he was working out Night of the Living Dead (right down to boarding up the doors to keep the shambling zombies out of the farmhouse), and John Carpenter went so far as to have The Thing playing throughout Halloween: it's the movie the kids are watching while the knife-wielding maniac dispatches the clueless teenagers. And of course, Carpenter himself reworked the material into the overrated 1982 remake, which has so much disgusting gore and so little humor that you wonder why on earth people seem to prefer it. It's definitely more intense, and it has the always fun to watch Kurt Russell, but for me there's no besting the first one (in this case).

With James Young, Dewey Martin, Robert Nichols, and William Self.

February 18, 2014

Alice Adams

One of the great awkward dinner scenes occurs near the end of Alice Adams (1935), a plucky Depression-era society drama about a dreamy but poor girl (Katharine Hepburn, whose performance embodies the intelligent side of sunniness) who's in love with a man (Fred MacMurray) from a well-to-do family. That dinner scene is the climax of all the work Alice has done in the movie to appear to have more money and breeding and class than she actually has. She flutters around messing with the furniture in preparing for the dinner, hoping he won't notice how old it is, and when her gentleman caller does come, she makes nervous jokes about her family's obvious deficiencies of income, hoping he'll be enchanted. She spends much of the film trying to simply cover up their lack of money, but nobody ever buys it, and what's more, she never gives anyone a chance to be unsnobbish (especially Fred MacMurray, who never gives her any indication that he even cares about her station). Alice Adams is somewhat dull now, but the performances still work. That scene when Mr. Adams' boss shows up and Alice convinces him to give her father a second chance is quite affecting.

It would be hard to imagine Katharine Hepburn ever being poor, especially considering her own New England background and all the parts for which she would later become known, but she plays Alice as a girl who has made an effort to become someone, to cultivate a mind and a personality and good taste, despite any setbacks of her provincial upbringing. That makes her believable. I really enjoyed the relationship between Alice and her brother Walter (Frank Albertson), who keeps getting roped into her schemes. He's a comical and a refreshing presence in a film that's mostly concerned with the petty problems of class warfare. Based on the novel by Booth Tarkington. With Fred Stone, Evelyn Venable, Ann Shoemaker, Charles Grapewin, and Hattie McDaniel. Directed by George Stevens.

February 17, 2014

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) is one of those movies people talk about with such reverence and enthusiasm that when you actually watch it, you may be surprised by how underwhelmed you feel. I can't say that I hated the movie, and believe me, I was sure that I would hate it. Actually, there are a few things in McCabe that are quite well-done, especially the tense, unnervingly quiet showdown which takes place in the last twenty minutes or so of the film. But I found much of the movie only moderately interesting.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a frontier movie, directed by Robert Altman and written by Altman and Brian McKay. (They adapted it from the novel, McCabe, by Edmund Naughton.) I kept wondering why they bothered to change the name to include Mrs. Miller, who's a madam played by Julie Christie. And although part of the film is about Constance Miller opening up a well-to-do house of prostitution with her business partner John McCabe (played by Warren Beatty), her character comes off as second-tier by the end of the picture.

Perhaps it's the spare dialogue and the film's overall rustic aesthetic quality. In a way, everybody is second-tier in a story like this, because ultimately it's just as much about the location, the Northwest in 1902 and how damned hard it was to live there. I will say this for Altman: he certainly knows how to deromanticize a genre. He did it to the film noir in The Long Goodbye, to the comedy in M*A*S*H*, and to the American country music scene in Nashville. That is partly why Altman's 1970's films are so highly regarded: They represented all that the new cinema had to offer at its peak, which is to say they both critiqued and re-invented the old genres that perhaps had become stale and trite to audiences. (I don't mean to suggest that that's all Altman's films did, but I must admit that many of them have more than a little disdain for their ancestry.)

I tried to imagine what it would have been like to see this movie upon its initial theatrical release over forty years ago. The seemingly sudden changes in American movies was both exciting and unsettling, depending on whom you asked. And they were changing just as surely and as rapidly and as intensely as American culture had changed, almost erupting in a kind of frenzied maelstrom. No one quite new what was going on, but I think many movie-lovers felt an incredible relief: the dust which had settled was not only being shaken off, but the whole damned floor was being ripped out, and it seemed like there weren't yet any new ground rules. So for someone like Robert Altman, whose work thrived on a kind of austere yet rich naturalism, this was lovely timing. It didn't last very long, but for a while Altman was one of the darling auteurs of American film, and even if every new and exciting idea wasn't a diamond, the fact that new and exciting ideas were being thought up and turned into feature films at all was revolutionary.

Forty years later, McCabe & Mrs. Miller still has power in it. In some ways, it's less dated than ever. But I also felt unaffected by the movie. I didn't have much interest in the characters or the world they were creating, and while I appreciated being shown just how unappealing a rustic township is to create, I found myself yearning for the maudlin insincerity of The Long Goodbye, or even the tender-hearted tendrils of Nashville. Altman's work has always been something of an uphill battle for me. I remember being totally mystified by Cookie's Fortune, which I rented in 1999 because I love Julianne Moore's acting, and then utterly perturbed by the quasi-mystery Gosford Park in 2001. (I was expecting Agatha Christie, and then I had to turn on the subtitles because the thick English accents were so difficult to understand.) As of right now, I'd still put The Long Goodbye as the best of Altman's movies that I've seen.

If someone were to remake McCabe & Mrs. Miller today, I'd want that great hipster folk band Fleet Foxes, with its rich, textured sounds, to do the music. McCabe is a Fleet Foxes kind of movie. That opening scene of Warren Beatty traveling to the flop house with the lilting, sorrowful Leonard Cohen song keeping time is quite magical in its own way, just as magical as the snow falling upon the burgeoning little town of Presbyterian Church (a comical name that for some reason made me think of the Canadian city of Medicine Hat). Yes, there is something to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, although I'm not entirely sure what it is.

With Rene Auberjonois, John Schrenk, Keith Carradine, and Shelley Duvall.

February 16, 2014

The Furies

Barbara Stanwyck is one of the few actresses of her era that could be convincing in either an evening dress or a pair of cowboy boots, and in Anthony Mann's 1950 Western The Furies, she gets to do both. Stanwyck plays Vance Jeffords, the tenacious daughter of an arrogant, domineering, but likable rancher named T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston, in his last film). Theirs is an explosive relationship, one that teeters between giddy, good-natured understanding and fiendish backstabbing. The Furies is the name of the ranch, which is situated in 1870's Texas, when the Mexicans were still making outrageous claims like, "Stop taking our land." (I know, really out of line. Just because they were there first they get to keep it?) Vance has a unique position in the ongoing quarrel between her father and the "squatters," a Mexican family named Herrera: she's in love with the eldest son, Juan (Gilbert Roland), although she's too aware of the realities of her world to do anything about it.

But don't misunderstand: The Furies isn't a weepy commentary on philistine social traditions. It's a study in the unfettered and usually cross-purposed ambitions of a father and daughter. T.C. has a son--played by the blandly hunky John Bromfield--but he's mostly in the background, doing what's expected, not making any waves. It's never even hinted that T.C. would entrust the Furies to him, because Vance always shows herself to be the most obvious and capable successor. That is until T.C. goes too far in his efforts to control his daughter, a struggle she constantly refuses to let him win.

People who think they understand gender roles or gender politics, both in real life and in the movies, should watch The Furies. If you think of old movies as purveyors of traditional gender roles, you should watch The Furies. You should take a good hard look at actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, who almost always played strong women who refused to defer to the ignorant or just plain stupid designs of certain men in their lives.

The Furies also holds up quite well sixty-plus years later. It's an elegant western boasting some lovely night scenes in which the impressive Jeffords ranch is outlined by the rolling Texas canyons. There's something kind of gorgeous about that image, and it recurs throughout the Western genre. Director Anthony Mann and screenwriter Charles Schnee are smart enough to recognize the merits of their actors, and we get lots of good moments with them: the scissors Barbara Stanwyck clutches at the beginning of the movie (they're later brought back into the plot, making that little bit of foreshadowing almost Hitchcockian); the scene where Stanwyck sort of glides down the stairs in a daze after committing a particularly violent act, and the entire household watches in a kind of stunned reverential silence; the delightful Herrera matriarch (played by Blanche Yurka) cackling as she pushes boulders down a steep canyon onto the ranchers who have decided to oust the squatters for good; the delicious bits of dialogue that Stanwyck gets to say, like, "I hope you can chew what you just bit off."
With Wendell Corey, Judith Anderson, Thomas Gomez, and Beulah Bondi.

February 14, 2014

Vampire Academy

It saddens me to think that Vampire Academy, which is currently playing in theaters, has barely even registered with movie-goers and was panned by most critics. It's not perfect, but Vampire Academy has a sense of humor, something consistently absent from a certain other undead franchise whose phenomenal popularity seems directly out of proportion with its quality. Vampire Academy is based on the young adult novel (one of a series) by Richelle Mead. It's a happy spawn of the current wave of new vampirism we're experiencing. If you're going to make a modern teen vampire thriller, this is how you should do it: smart, clever, surprising, sexy without being obsessed with sex, and able to take a joke.

The biggest problem with Vampire Academy is its pacing. Director Mark Waters (Mean Girls) and screenwriter Daniel Waters (Heathers) hustle their way through this film. You get the feeling that anxious studio heads were putting pressure on them, and the result is that a lot of exposition is quickly dispensed by various characters, all of whom speak at about 75 miles per hour. There's never a "wasted" moment, and yet Vampire Academy doesn't feel economical, just rushed. But, compare this to four Twilight movies (well, five if you count the last one being split into two separate films) and, you'll see an interesting (and somewhat depressing) imbalance: the movie with the most to say is the one that gets the least amount of time to say it. It's an entertaining movie despite this flaw.

Here's the plot, in a nutshell: Rose Hathaway is a spunky, brash, ass-kicking teenager who has been entrusted with the care and protection of her best friend, Lissa (Lucy Fry), who's not only a vampire, but the last of her line in some kind of royal vampire clan. Both of them attend St. Vladimir's Academy, which is comprised exclusively of vampires and half-vampires. Rose is one of the half-vampires (a dhampir). She's free to go out in the daytime, while Lissa, a moroi (a good vampire) must cover up and wear sunglasses. And, unlike Lissa, Rose does not need to drink blood. Also, there are bad vampires called strigoi that resemble the traditional Dracula-type bloodsuckers.

The film opens with Rose and Lissa living on their own after having run away from St. Vladimir's. When they are captured and taken back to the academy, we immediately sense some kind of internal diabolical plot brewing. The headmistress of St. Vladimir's is oddly sinister, and pretty soon Lissa becomes the target of a series of creepy jokes/accidents/attacks. There are lots of other mysteries and plot developments in Vampire Academy, so many that you again wish the film had taken time to linger a bit and let things develop in a more organic fashion. But I won't reveal any more, because you should see it for yourself.

It's hard to complain too much, because the movie is continually surprising and fresh. These young women are tough and able to take care of themselves, and what's more, they don't sit around moping about how boring/unattractive/unappealing/pathetic they are. We need more movies about women like this. There were a few enjoyable jokes at Twilight's expense, but all in all, Vampire Academy wasn't setting itself up as the anti-Twilight. It's just trying to be a fun vampire movie, and I think it succeeds with relish. Some critics have suggested a TV show would have been a better format for this material, but I honestly think it works quite well as a movie. There are enough mysteries in Vampire Academy to keep the viewer in suspense, and enough interesting characters in this world to anchor you to the film: it has spunk and depth that are lacking in so much other teenager-marketed entertainment.

The culture of St. Vladimir's is an intriguing thread that the movie explores, although not enough to satisfy my curiosity. The school in Harry Potter feels like a character in and of itself. Vampire Academy doesn't quite achieve such a feat, although there is potential if a sequel happens. (The movie's poor box office performance thus far may prevent that from happening.) The writer of Heathers has certainly retained his keen sense of the viciousness of high schoolers: there's a subplot about a mousy, mean-spirited girl from the school (Sami Gayle, who has her blond hair cut short like Anne Hathaway), who spearheads much of the Carrie-like tricks played upon the endangered vampire girl. Of course, the movie belongs to Rose, or Zoey Deutch, the girl with a low tolerance for BS. There are plenty of interesting male characters too, like Rose's mentor, a Russian dhampir named Dimitri (Danila Kozlovsky), and an outcast student (whose parents willingly became the "bad" kind of vampires) named Christian (Dominic Sherwood), whom I guess you could compare to Edward Cullen, although again, Twilight fumbles where Vampire Academy gets it right.

With Claire Foy, Gabriel Byrne, Joely Richardson, and Olga Kurylenko.

February 12, 2014

The Hustler

I've never responded to The Hustler (1961) with burgeoning enthusiasm, although I do think it's well-made and quite a good movie. It's also probably the film that solidified Paul Newman's place as a serious leading man, even though he'd already demonstrated his charisma, charm, and ability to keep an audience glued to the screen in movies like Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Long Hot Summer. I love the excesses of Cat and the sizzling Southern sex appeal of Summer. The Hustler is a more restrained movie in some ways (or maybe less over-the-top is the right way to put it), but it explores a number of grown-up issues fairly openly and in a nuanced way, so it's easy to see why it appealed to audiences and critics in 1961: it's a thoughtful if somewhat dated movie directed with taste and style and economy by Robert Rossen about a low-class heel named Eddie Felson, a pool hustler who, like any good addict, doesn't know when to quit. He longs to play against the allegedly unbeatable Minnesota Fats (played with his own brand of relaxed cool by Jackie Gleason). But when the two of them do play each other, Fats beats the pants of Eddie, only whetting his appetite for another shot at him.

What is admittedly fascinating about The Hustler is its exploration of damaged, addicted, pathetic people. Eddie--despite all his skill as a pool player and his boyish good looks and his happy-go-lucky charm--is a loser. (He's told as much by any number of the other characters in the film). And what's more, he's in complete denial about it. This makes him a perfect match for Piper Laurie's character, a drunk named Sarah whom he meets at a bus station one morning. They eventually go back to her place, and the world they forge together is one of excesses, a perfect breeding ground for unhappiness that's just drunk enough to pass off as contentment, until it's too late.

The Hustler represents the change Hollywood was undergoing in the 1960s: there's a kind of unmitigated darkness explored in this movie that you wouldn't have likely found--outside of a film noir, maybe--ten or fifteen years earlier. (And in the film noirs, that darkness was always stylized so that it felt fun and thrilling.) Here the darkness is real and pathetic and alarming, and this might explain why I've generally felt a bit detached from the movie. It's a sad film about sad people, yet this makes it quite believable, quite realistic, and what's more, it doesn't attempt to explain its characters or redeem them. We're not supposed to walk out of the movie feeling some kind of happy, chipper last-minute message about humankind being broken but fixable.

Piper Laurie really makes an impression in The Hustler: the minute she speaks--with that husky, deep, billowing yet soft voice--she's a presence, a kind of elixir that not even the charm of Paul Newman can temper. And Newman, who always exuded a kind of laid-back, indomitable likability, keeps up his end of the bargain here: he makes Eddie somehow acceptable, despite his flaws and the beautifully tragic imbalance of his life: he has such masterful control when he's hot, such absolute nothingness when he's not. It's a striking quality, and it's what makes Paul Newman such a noteworthy actor of his or any era.

The film is based on a novel by Walter Tevis, and it was adapted by Sidney Carroll and the director. The lovely jazz score was composed by Kenyon Hopkins. With George C. Scott as a rich businessman who becomes Eddie's manager, Myron McCormick as Eddie's former manager/partner, and Murray Hamilton. Followed by The Color of Money in 1986, which finally afforded Newman a long overdue Academy Award for Best Actor. (I think he should have gotten it for Hud.)

February 09, 2014

The Monuments Men

George Clooney's The Monuments Men is the latest in self-congratulatory, cheerfully conservative history-as-cinema offerings from Hollywood. It's a tad depressing that it comes from George Clooney, who has been a part of some really fine films for grown-ups like The Descendants and Up in the Air and several others I'm forgetting right now (not The Ides of March). This one is about the band of semi-soldiers enlisted to rescue priceless works of art that the Third Reich was stealing from European museums and churches and then secreting away in German mines and towns. The story is set late in the war (1944 mostly), and the men scramble around the continent, from Belgium to France to Germany. The cast will surely get your attention, and give you reason to hope for a good time during The Monuments Men: Clooney (who also directed) as the leader, Lt. Frank Stokes; Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett. All of them more or less wonderful actors who are admittedly enjoyable to watch for two hours.

There are several problems with The Monuments Men that made it mostly a disappointment for me. The first is the fact that it panders to us the audience on multiple occasions, and in some cases insults our intelligence. Somewhere along the halfway point, after the men have been involved in a number of dangerous close calls with Nazi soldiers in order to get their hands on a stolen Cezanne or a wrested Rembrandt (and even some genuine tragedies that I won't reveal for the sake of spoiler control), we get a Clooney voice-over telling us why art is worth dying for: it's our culture, our history, and if it is lost, it's as if we didn't exist. (We're reminded of this again and again in the movie, just in case it was fuzzy the first time.) I sat up straighter in my chair, pulled out my notebook, and began furiously jotting down the words of wisdom just in case there would be a quiz after the movie. I really needed an A.

If you pay close attention, you'll find that voice-overs are often utilized when the filmmakers are afraid they haven't been clear enough visually in their storytelling. Or perhaps they're worried we the audience will miss the point of their movie, so rather than allow us to figure it out in our own time, they conveniently hand it over to us in neatly packaged form for immediate digestion. But was anyone really that confused about the importance of saving art during WW2? Was there some poor befuddled audience member thinking, "Why are they going to all this trouble?" Perhaps so, but couldn't the movie have done something to show us this to underline its very obvious point?

And then there's the film's sunny disposition, which isn't necessarily a problem for me in itself--God knows we've had enough misery-inducing celluloid devoted to World War II--but this movie wants to be both a cheerful, light-hearted romp and a scathing condemnation of Hitler and tug at our heartstrings when necessary. There's one scene that stands out in particular regarding the heartstrings-tugging: It's December 1944, the men are all getting weary, and we watch them all react while an angelic young woman purs "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" over the radio. Bill Murray tears up in the shower, and I thought I could even distinguish the tears from the streams of water falling down his face. We're asked to go on this gay romp through the cobblestone streets of Europe, but when called upon, we must rail against the evils of Nazism like we're suddenly watching Schindler's List and this is one of the Auschwitz scenes. And finally, we are expected to reach for the tissues to dry our moist eyes and noses whenever something sentimental happens.

The script--by Clooney and Grant Heslov--isn't much good either. I found myself naturally tuning out much of the dialogue because it was clunky and unclear. And the attempts at humor were often thunderously over-zealous, like when the movie reminds us that Matt Damon's French is bad on no less than three separate occasions, with even the subtitles showing us his crummy translation skills. Yes, it was cute the first time, but did it need to become a running joke? We're also meant to care for these men (and one woman, played by Blanchett) and become emotionally invested in their race against time, but I felt that they were basically cardboard characters, blank slates waiting for us to project our love of masculine heroism onto them. And the movie has no suspense. You know they're going to be successful, because Hollywood wouldn't allow The Monuments Men to fail in their mission (even if they had failed in real life).

There were good parts in Monuments Men, such as the scene when Balaban and Murray are "accosted" by a very young German soldier, who lets down his guard once Murray sits down (gun in hand) and offers him a cigarette. (It's all the more amusing because the kid doesn't speak English and they don't speak German.) And the scenes with Cate Blanchett are interesting: She brings an austere intensity to her character, a French museum worker whose brother is working for the resistance and who turns out to be the key to finding much of the stolen art. But there again I find another quibble with the plot: the movie basically stalls until Matt Damon finally breaks down Blanchett's resolve. (She's suspicious of his intentions, afraid he'll capture the stolen art and send it back to the  U.S.)

Aside from the likably curmudgeonly qualities of actors like Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and John Goodman (qualities that exist outside of this film too, I might add), there's nothing of substance in Monuments Men. It has the light-heartedness of something like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (it's a kind of artistic wild goose chase that's straining for comic effect), and yet it desperately wants to be important and serious and remind us of what we've already known for some time. Hollywood movies that want to be history lessons always worry me, because I don't want movies to be as dry and well-intentioned as the average history lesson. We seem hellbent on ranking the "important" movies in terms of what moral message they can teach us. Even more problematic then is the message of Monuments Men, as it's so damned obvious. Yes, we all know that Hitler was bad. Yes, we all know that art is good. So if you want to be congratulated for liking art and hating Hitler, then this if your movie. 

February 01, 2014

Red River

400th review

It's somewhat mystifying to me that so many people have found something to love in Howard Hawks's Red River (1948), a Western about power and immortality and cattle. It's not a terrible movie, but it's also not a particularly captivating one either. John Wayne plays Thomas Dunson, a rancher who has the land and the cattle, but not the money. After ten years of slaving away in the Texas desert, he decides to move his 9000-head herd 1000 miles to Missouri, where there's a purported cattle market waiting to be sated. He takes his adoptive son Matt (Montgomery Clift) and a team of men that includes the reliably and amusingly grumbling, bitchy Walter Brennan and the suspicious-looking John Ireland along with him.

It's entirely too repetitive, full of scenes of the cattle that apparently cost a bundle (and led to the budget's astronomical increase). However, the performances are good, and somewhat bolster what I would call a lackluster Western. John Wayne is extremely interesting when he's conflicted, and he's extremely conflicted in Red River, especially when he becomes blinded by his power and suspicious of his progeny, the always interesting Montgomery Clift, who then takes over as the group's new leader. Clift always seems to have more going on in his head than is available to us on the screen, which is perhaps what makes him such a fascinating if sometimes aloof performer to watch. And it's never a completely lost cause when you get to see Monty Clift bitch-slap somebody.

There's also a surprising amount of sexually suggestive dialogue. The film's gay subtext has been discussed in detail ad nauseum, and it's certainly not for nothing that people reference this film when they talk about how Hollywood screenwriters and filmmakers cleverly got around the stuffy conservatism of the Production Code. But when it comes to Howard Hawks movies, I'm still in love with The Big Sleep, and when it comes to Hawks westerns, Rio Bravo. Red River seems overrated. It lumbers along for over an hour with little to hold one's interest (except for a well-staged and exciting scene involving an Indian attack and another involving the aforementioned stampede). But watching cows march from Point A to Point B for over two hours gets dull after a while, and the problems between the men are only partly arresting.

With Joanne Dru (an admittedly arresting Howard Hawks heroine if ever there was one), Harry Carey, Hank Worden, and Paul Fix.