Wednesday, February 22, 2012
He didn't need dialogue! He had his face!
By Edward Copeland
Writing a review of The Artist has proved unusually difficult for me. I watched the film for the first time a couple of weeks ago and found it charming enough but — and perhaps it's appropriate — I was at a loss for words. Not because the movie bowled me over so much that I was awestruck, I just felt that either I was missing something or the film was. I decided to watch The Artist a second time to try and determine what gnawed at me.
On the off chance you haven't heard about The Artist, I'll give you a brief synopsis of its plot. After all, the movie will be crowned the newest Academy Award-winning best picture Sunday night, you should probably know. There isn't much of a plot so it won't take long. In 1927, one of the biggest stars of the silent film era is George Valentin (Oscar nominee Jean Dujardin). Outside the premiere of his latest film, an eager fan named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo, also nominated) stumbles into a paparazzi shot with Valentin and, later, as an extra on one of his films. From there, the story unfolds along the lines of A Star Is Born. Only in The Artist, George Valentin's career doesn't plummet because of alcohol but by sound coming to motion pictures. Peppy soars at the same time.
The Artist alludes to so many different films, I'm sure I missed some. What fascinated me about the choices was that the overwhelming number of references writer-director Michel Hazanavicius makes come from the sound era. For a throwback to the days of black-and-white silent films, very few pay tribute to classics of that era. (The closest — and it's a reach — is the opening scene of a film within the film showing Valentin strapped down with electrodes sending shocks to his head that vaguely recall Metropolis. Of course, he's not a robot and it gives the movie funny lines to open with as he tells his interrogators that he won't speak.) Contrast that with Martin Scorsese's nostalgic look back at silent film in his three-dimensional, color, sound production of Hugo which overflows with sets and sequences that include shout-outs to famous silent films such as Modern Times and Safety Last.
In The Artist, the breakfast table scenes between George and his wife, Doris (a nearly unrecognizable Penelope Ann Miller), obviously aims to evoke the famous scene in Citizen Kane. They revisit Kane later when George discovers that all of his personal treasures that the collapse of his career and the economy force him to auction have been stored in a room in Peppy's mansion beneath sheets. His find leads to the use of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo score that gave Kim Novak a conniption fit. While I don't share the actress's over-the-top objections to its use, I do have to ask what message the audience should take from its presence. First, assuming that your average moviegoer recognizes that the music that begins playing comes from Hitchcock's classic (and that's a big if), by George's frantic fleeing, is the implication that Valentin fears that Peppy wants to shape him into his own image as Scottie Ferguson wished to turn Judy into Madeleine? Perhaps given their history of encounters he suspect she's a stalker.
You also can be pretty certain going into a silent film made in 2011 about the downward spiral of a silent film star that you aren't getting out of the theater without some Sunset Blvd. references. Valentin makes for the obvious Norma surrogate in this scenario. When the studio boss (John Goodman) tells him that he better not laugh at sound because it's the future, Valentin says (or, more accurately, a title card reads), "If that's the future, you can have it." Valentin even goes so far as to decide to make his own silent movie, though in 1929 he's typing out his screenplay instead of scribbling out a script of Salome as Norma Desmond was still doing by the time 1950 showed up. The big difference between Valentin and Norma though is that Valentin isn't bonkers and perhaps neither was Norma that soon after talkies took over. The crucial part of Sunset Blvd. concerns the screenwriter Joe Gillis seeking refuge in Norma's garage and meeting her, thinking he can scam her before he basically becomes a prisoner in her mansion. In The Artist, after being saved from a fire by the quick-thinking of his pooch Uggie (don't ask), George ends up hospitalized and Peppy takes him back to her mansion in a way, making her the Norma. This precedes the discovery of his auctioned memorabilia and the borrowing of Herrmann's Vertigo score. Even though earlier, Valentin's former chauffeur/butler Clifton (James Cromwell), who kept working for George for a year without pay but now works for Peppy swears to his former boss that Peppy "has a good heart." The Artist fires mixed signals all over the place.
Surprisingly, The Artist tends to steer clear of any direct references to the classic Singin' in the Rain, my choice and the choice of many others for Hollywood's greatest movie musical, that also covered film's transition to sound. Obviously, since The Artist eschews sound, except for a couple of appropriate moments, it can't very well be a musical or make a joke about a silent star having a horrible voice that won't work in talkies. More importantly, I don't think The Artist dared to go there because comparing it to Singin' in the Rain would be too dangerous. It can toss out references to great movies such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Sunset Blvd. because as a whole The Artist bears little resemblance to those films. Singin' in the Rain holds a mirror up to the essential emptiness inside The Artist.
This isn't to say that The Artist is a bad film, not by any means. It's affable, well directed and entertaining. It has many nice and funny moments. (One that probably only amused someone like me is the first time Peppy gets a screen credit, they misspell her first name as Pepi. It still amazes me how many times that happens. Frank Capra's 1948 film State of the Union was on recently and spelled Katharine Hepburn's above-the-title name as Katherine. No one has bothered to correct this in more than 60 years?) Guillaume Schiffman's black-and-white cinematography shimmers but I have to say that the original portions of Ludovic Bource's score can be overbearing. If they really wanted to do a silent movie now, why not have a score that sounds like what a moviegoer might have heard in a theater in 1927? Something simple, on a pipe organ, not a fully orchestrated blow-out-your-eardrums composition.
Jean Dujardin makes the film. You could believe he came from the silent era, yet when he's playing the offscreen Valentin you see the difference. Bérénice Bejo isn't the same story. There isn't much subtlety in anything she does.
I finally put my finger on what gnawed at me about The Artist. It's like the old joke about eating Chinese food. It's fulfilling enough while you're consuming it, but a few hours later you're hungry again.
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Tuesday, February 21, 2012
A movie about being someone not doing something
By Edward Copeland
If you're like me, it drives you nuts when the so-called cable news channels continue to call something "breaking news" hours or even days after the initial event occurred. That's why I wonder if I'm wasting space by beginning my review of The Iron Lady heaping praise on Meryl Streep's performance as Margaret Thatcher. Streep Delivers Good Performance isn't exactly a jaw-dropping revelation by now, is it? If it were someone such as Kate Capshaw or Lori Petty turning in a bravura portrayal of the former prime minister of Great Britain, that would be news (as well as a sign of the impending apocalypse). Streep's work though happens to be what's best about The Iron Lady, which otherwise does not offer much worth lauding. Since most of this post consists of brickbats, I may as well begin with something nice.
Actually, I do have something else positive to say about The Iron Lady. The Oscar-nominated makeup job that Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland performed on Meryl Streep to make her look like Margaret Thatcher at various ages deserves the highest praise. It not only succeeds at its primary goal, but achieves this effect without betraying that it is makeup (as opposed to the horrific prosthetics that Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer suffered beneath in J. Edgar). Coulier's credits include being involved in the prosthetic makeup on all of the Harry Potter films as well as working with the prosthetics on Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, where Coulier also did work with animatronics. Helland has served as Streep's makeup and hair stylist on practically every film she's made dating back to 1982's Still of the Night.
It seems appropriate that Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar should come up while discussing The Iron Lady because both exemplify the difficulty filmmakers have making biopics. Somewhere, a book must exist on writing the screenplays for movies about historical figures and chapter one must emphasize, "Find a Framing Device." Inevitably, this almost always means having the movie's subject look back at his or her life (unless it's an epic biopic and the protagonist got killed or assassinated — then the film must begin with his death as in Lawrence of Arabia or Gandhi). In both of the 2011 films about Hoover and Thatcher, the results suffer from Cliffs Notes-like summaries of the subject's greatest hits. At least in J. Edgar, despite the hideous makeup, it comes in the form of Hoover dictating memoirs to a series of agents Hoover enlists as typists, which makes that film slightly better than The Iron Lady, which chooses the controversial path of having the current Thatcher, in her 80s and suffering from Alzheimer's, going through old items and believing she's having conversations with her long-dead husband Denis (played with a complete sense of frivolity by Jim Broadbent, who behaves at times as if he's back on the set of Moulin Rouge waiting for his cue to break out into "Like a Virgin.")
If you go by the description of the film put on The Weinstein Company's official website for the movie, it's hard not to laugh since their description doesn't really match what's on the screen, but then the paragraph below that admits how telling a factual story wasn't a top priority either.
"Set in the present day, The Iron Lady finds Margaret Thatcher, now in her 80s, struggling with the confines of her simple domestic life in Chester Square, London. Haunted by visions of her deceased husband Denis, Margaret is swept away by memories of her past — both personal and political — which shaped her life and career. As Margaret traces her rise to political prominence…(she) must come to terms with a legacy that is both admired and reviled, and grapple with the great personal cost that her convictions have exacted on her supporters, her family, and, finally, herself."
Sounds like that would make for a fascinating movie. Unfortunately, The Iron Lady didn't end up being that movie. I do have to ask if there's an implication that Thatcher's convictions somehow led to her Alzheimer's. Myself, a political and history buff, I would have liked to see an exploration of Thatcher's rise to power and the nitty-gritty of her governance with more that explained why her policies drew both admiration and revulsion. Instead, we keep returning to her old-age dementia and occasionally flash back to her young days as a student (where she's played by Alexandra Roach) and the movie seems like a remake of Iris. The Iron Lady though, much like J. Edgar, lacks any sort of attitude toward its subject. Look how that same website describe the film's director's approach (and why on earth would she be the choice for the film in the first place?)
"Combining fact, fiction and poetic flights of imagination into a new breed of biopic, director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia!) creates a piercing portrait which reveals the many faces of Margaret Thatcher: the hard-nosed conservative; the woman who demolished barriers of gender and class in a male-dominated world; the spirited wife and mother who longed to change her country for the better. Exposing the private life behind the headlines, The Iron Lady is a moving journey into the heart of an extraordinary complex woman."
On the plus side, Law's "poetic flights of imagination" didn't include having Streep crawl across the roof of No. 10 Downing Street singing some appropriate cut from Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" as a group of protesters appear from nowhere and begin crawling toward her. Actually, that might have improved the movie. I can't be certain this portion of The Iron Lady falls into fact, fiction or a poetic flight, but in a flashback to Thatcher (then Roberts) and her first runs for office as a Conservative seeking the strong Labour seat at Dartford in 1950 and 1951, she meets Denis Thatcher, who proposes and they wed in late 1951. After his proposal, the film shows them dancing to "Shall We Dance?" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical The King and I, which didn't open on Broadway until March 1951 and didn't mount a West End production until 1953. How soon the original cast recording came out and the song made its way across the ocean, I have no idea.
As if selecting Lloyd as director for her second feature film wasn't an odd enough choice, the screenwriter turns out to be Abi Morgan, co-writer of the overrated, empty-headed Shame so I suppose we should be grateful that we didn't get any scenes of Maggie in bondage gear. Actually, adding Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher to Shame might have helped that film — Lord knows all the characters in that film needed a stern talking to. I should say, to Morgan's credit, she also wrote the fine HBO miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath, so she's eclectic.
Which brings us back to Streep, the best thing The Iron Lady has going for it. She looks and sounds like Margaret Thatcher, though I have to ask — is this truly a great Streep performance or an example of great Streep mimicry? The foundation upon which she must perform isn't sturdy in the least, so how deep can Streep delve into Thatcher when she's in a movie that freely admits it's mixing fact, fiction and "poetic flights of imagination" for some new kind of biopic? Does her work in The Iron Lady really equal or top her performances in Doubt, The Devil Wears Prada, Adaptation, The Bridges of Madison County? I know it doesn't come close to A Cry in the Dark, Out of Africa or Sophie's Choice.
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Monday, February 20, 2012
Nothing just happens
By Edward Copeland
People tend to be described as dog people or cat people. New York people or L.A. people — you get the idea. When it comes to filmmakers, countless directors fall into that sort of categorizing where either you love their work or their movies just rub you the wrong way. I know many people who flat-out dislike the films of Alexander Payne whereas he hasn't disappointed me yet. The Descendants, Payne's first work on the big screen as a director/co-writer since the "14e arrondissement" segment in 2006's Paris, je t'aime and first feature since the sublime Sideways in 2004, doesn't break his streak. In fact, I think it could be Payne's finest film so far and it definitely delivers a role to George Clooney that allows the actor to give the best performance of his career.
Perhaps the secret to Payne's success can be put in two simple words: He reads. With the exception of Citizen Ruth, his first feature as a writer/director, all Payne's subsequent films have been adaptations of novels — not giant, well-known best sellers, mind you, but fiction that somehow crossed his path and seemed as if they'd transfer well into films. In a recent profile in The New York Times, Payne said that the reason he started to co-write his own screenplays was because when he began his career all the scripts that came his way didn't appeal to him. The Descendants began life as a well-reviewed 2007 novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings and marks the first Payne feature that the director didn't co-write with Jim Taylor (though Taylor does serve as a producer). Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, the other writers credited with Payne on the screenplay, both received their first feature writing credits, having worked primarily as actors.
Matt King (Clooney) makes a great living practicing law in paradise — or at least that's what many think when they hear the word Hawaii. Not everyone agrees, especially Matt King with everything he has on his plate. As he says in a voiceover early in the film, "Paradise can go fuck itself." Though King and his extended family of cousins bear little outward signs of being native Hawaiians, their ancestry stretches back to original Hawaiian royalty, giving them the rights to a huge tract of beautiful, untouched Hawaiian land that's their family has held in trust for eons. The trust expires in seven years and Matt somehow has become the trustee who makes the final call after a vote by the various cousins whether to hold on to the land or accept one of two competing offers that will make all the relatives rich.
The pre-scheduled family meeting has come at a most inopportune time for Matt as his wife, Elizabeth, suffers severe injuries in a boating accident that places her in a coma. Soon after, the doctor informs Matt that Elizabeth is in a persistent vegetative state and won't be coming back. According to the terms of her living will, Elizabeth didn't want any unusual measures taken to keep her alive and wants all life support turned off so her friends can have a chance to say goodbye before her funeral. Matt, who pretty much lives in a world of obliviousness, finds himself suddenly the main caretaker for his precocious and odd 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller).
As he finds himself dealing with several incidents Scottie has caused at school and with her friends, he retrieves his 17-year-old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) from the boarding school he and Elizabeth sent her to following drug problems. Alexandra still harbors a grudge against her mother about a fight they had over Christmas break that her father urges her to let go and Alex realizes that Matt has no idea what mother and daughter fought about and she fills him in — Elizabeth had been cheating on him with another man.
The screenplay, which deservedly won the Writers Guild Award for adapted screenplay last night, perfectly blends the comedy and pathos of all the characters' situations and the entire cast from the biggest roles to the smallest perform them with pitch-perfect aplomb. Among some of the performers who show up in small but quite effective roles are Beau Bridges as one of Matt's cousins, Robert Forster as Elizabeth's perpetually pissed father, Matthew Lillard as Elizabeth's lover and Judy Greer as his wife. You probably guess early on that the land trust decision and Matt's stepping into his role as a father and dealing with his dying wife's secrets will tie together, but they tie together quite naturally and without any gimmicks.
The Descendants also marks Payne's best use of visuals as a director. He especially finds some really unusual and unique framing built around Clooney's head — and I don't mean Clooney's usual handsome profile. No scene or shot seems extraneous and while the film provides plenty of laughs, the feeling it leaves you with is one of warmth and the credit for that really belongs to its four main characters.
The actor who hasn't been discussed much in all the praise showered upon The Descendants is Nick Krause who plays Sid, who Matt describes as being about "100 miles from smartsville." He appears to be a stoned-out teen whose presence never really gets explained but Alex insists that she needs him there for if her dad wants her to stay and help with Scottie. Sid's knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time balances out with an ability to define a situation accurately without fear of repercussions. One of the best tiny scenes come when Matt wanders in on Sid in the middle of the night and random talk reveals why Alex relates to Sid.
Amara Miller gives one of the better turns I've seen from someone playing a precocious 10-year-old. She manages to sound as if she's saying and doing things beyond her years without losing that essence of childhood that so often gets lost in the work of professional child actors. There isn't any of that sing-songy fakery that they often give off. You always believe she's a kid first.
Shailene Woodley emerges as the movie's real find as Alexandra, giving a fully rounded performance as Alex begins as cynical, caustic and shielded, angry at her mom, her dad and the world until she slowly develops into her father's co-conspirator in his desire to track down the man who cuckolded him. Her evolution from Matt's nemesis to his ally serves as the story's bridge.
Clooney stands out, but not because he's the biggest star but because Matt King gives him a different type of character to play than he ever has had the chance to portray before. Clooney never has turned in a bad performance, but far too often his parts have been ones that he simply slided by on his charm. We've never seen Clooney play someone as completely at sea as Matt King is. When Alex tells him that he hasn't got a clue, referring specifically to her mom's affair, she could be talking about anything. Matt even describes himself to another child's parent as "the understudy parent." He appears to do his job competently, but a parade of elephants could walk past his house and he might not notice. The arc of Matt regaining control of himself and connecting with his daughters drives The Descendants and taps acting power not seen from Clooney before.
It's a helluva coincidence that in the same year both Clooney here and his buddy Brad Pitt in Moneyball landed roles that stretched their abilities as actors and provided each with his best screen performance yet. In terms of lead actors, 2011 truly has been an embarrassment of riches. If I were an Oscar voter, I'd be horribly torn between Clooney, Pitt and Gary Oldman in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. For a change, none of the nominees in that acting category is a joke and yet there still are countless others who would have been deserving of a slot.
As for The Descendants, I feel confident it should win adapted screenplay Sunday, but though I've been unable to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or War Horse, I think it deserves the top prize as well.
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Sunday, February 19, 2012
There's a storm coming — and he goes by the name of Michael Shannon
By Edward Copeland
Over the course of the past several years, I have become a huge fan of Michael Shannon. It took his brief appearance in Revolutionary Road for him to catch my attention and after that, I always noticed him in films such as The Missing Person and The Runaways. For the past two years, Shannon has been seen to me almost exclusively in the guise of Agent Nelson Van Alden on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. He has turned in a brilliant performance despite the fact that his character has been written into a corner and removed from the main action of the series in the second season. That's why getting to see Shannon play a completely different character in Take Shelter provided such a refreshing experience, even if the movie itself isn't quite as good as its reputation.
Shannon stars as Curtis LaForche, a 35-year-old Ohio husband and father haunted by dreams of an impending cataclysm that could mean the end of the world. Part of him worries that he's showing signs of the same type of mental illness his mother (Kathy Baker, who appears in a nice, understated cameo) developed around the same age. However, Curtis doesn't want to take chances so he begins fortifying and expanding the family's storm shelter — even to the point of taking out risky loans and "borrowing" heavy equipment from the sand-mining operation where he works as a crew chief.
The family lives in a precarious financial state as it is. His wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain, required by a rider on a piece of congressional legislation to appear in every third film released in 2011), helps to supplement the meager family income with work as a seamstress to help with the costs associated with their 6-year-old daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart), who is deaf but might be a candidate for a cochlear implant.
Eventually, Curtis' obsession begins to take a toll, putting a strain on his marriage, affecting his job and reputation in the community. Shannon, who I never seem to tire of praising, gives a very quiet performance as Curtis, which makes the one scene when he's confronted by a co-worker (played by Shea Whigham, Boardwalk Empire's Sheriff Eli Thompson) and explodes in rage, defending his sanity and warning the people in the room of what might be coming all the more powerful.
Chastain also turns in a fine performance. Granted, I've only been able to see about a third of the 276 films in which she appeared in 2011, but I may be most impressed with Chastain's work here, though that could change if I ever see Coriolanus or Texas Killing Fields.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter marks his second feature after his debut, Shotgun Stories, which also starred Shannon. While the acting in Take Shelter can't be faulted and Nichols writes an intriguing premise, the film could have used more judicious cutting. At nearly a full two hours long, Take Shelter occasionally drags and some scenes seem redundant. Also, while I understand that Take Shelter had a relatively low budget ($5 million), some of the visual effects look hokey.
Take Shelter is far from perfect, but it does offer another great Michael Shannon performance.
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Saturday, February 18, 2012
"Your horse is a mirror to your soul."
By Edward Copeland
So says Buck Brannaman, the inspiration for the idea of a "horse whisperer" and the subject of the documentary Buck. "Sometimes you may not like what you see, sometimes you will," Brannaman completes his statement. Directed by Cindy Meehl, Buck made the Academy's shortlist for best documentary feature though it didn't make the cut for the final five. It's a fine and interesting film and though my pool of 2011 documentaries runs much smaller than the Academy's, Buck wouldn't have made my final five either.
This isn't meant to imply that there's something intrinsically bad about Buck, it's just that other documentaries proved far more interesting, enlightening or informative to me. What did appeal to me most about Buck was watching and learning about Brannaman's "natural horsemanship" approach to training horses in light of my current enjoyment of the new HBO series Luck. Natural horsemanship is a movement that rejects the use of punishing the animals but instead attempts to speak to the horses in their language as opposed to expecting the horse to learn to speak human. Of course, Brannaman isn't training horses to race, but that's still what sparked my interest because when you get close to them they are just such beautiful, majestic creatures.
Brannaman was one of the primary inspirations for Nicholas Evans' novel The Horse Whisperer and served as a consultant on Robert Redford's film version. Coincidentally, writer Eric Roth adapted the novel into the screenplay for the movie and he now serves as a co-executive producer on Luck and is credited as the writer of the teleplay for the series' first season finale. Redford appears in the documentary and tells the story of how they had a scene where the horse was supposed to come up and nuzzle the young Scarlett Johansson but since it was a trained Hollywood horse who took its clues from his trainer who had no place to be in the sightline of the shot, they could never get the actor horse to do it. They were losing light and running long and Brannaman suggested using one of his horses. Redford, who directed and starred in the film, was skeptical, telling Brannaman that his horse wasn't an actor horse and wouldn't know how to his marks. Brannaman told him to give him about a half an hour and sure enough, Brannaman's horse hit the marks and nuzzled Scarlett and didn't leave a dry eye on the crew. It turned Redford into a true believer of Brannaman's methods right then and there.
Brannaman, who spends nine months out of the year on the road holding clinics and teaching his techniques, had Ray Hunt, one of the founders of the natural horsemanship movement, as his mentor for many years. Hunt popularized the clinic idea in the 1970s, where he began each one by saying, "I'm here for the horse, to help him get a better deal." Hunt also was known for telling participants his philosophy: "If you get bucked off or kicked or bitten, you obviously did something wrong, and that's just too bad. The horse, on the other hand, is never, ever wrong."
The documentary pulls its surprise, at least for someone like me unfamiliar with Brannaman before watching Buck, and makes it more interesting than a simple profile when it reveals that Brannaman's work with horses didn't come about because he sought to end the cycle of violence and cruelty against the animals but because horses along with the citizens of the town in which he and his brother were growing up rescued the boys from the abuse they endured at the hands of their father. When that section comes up, seemingly out of nowhere, it manages to sadden and inspire at the same time. When his P.E. teacher tells Buck in junior high that he must take a shower because Brannaman has been refusing. When he disrobes, the teacher sees the imprints left by his father's frequent whippings. The teacher says we're not going to have any of that and tells the sheriff who repeats the same words and the boys are rescued from their father and placed in the foster care of a protective, loving couple. It's there were Brannaman began seeking comfort in horses. If Buck contains a major flaw, it's that we never hear what happens to his brother. There's also some sad moments concerning an orphaned horse that a woman brings to Brannaman in hopes that he can help calm the horse to be around other horses and people, but even a horse whisperer can't be a miracle worker.
Buck provides many interesting moments but we're living in a time when a plethora of good and great documentaries get made each year — often at a much higher ratio than fictional features — so the competition can be fierce. Buck is good, but there were better.
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Friday, February 17, 2012
There is no point. That's the point.
By Edward Copeland
Tilda Swinton amazes. Each year, she delivers an incredible performance in a film that, in the hands of a Harvey Weinstein or experienced studio marketing team, would most assuredly land her in the best actress Oscar field. Granted, Swinton won an Oscar in the supporting category for Michael Clayton, but she's missed the cut three years running for Julia, I Am Love and now We Need to Talk About Kevin. The big difference this year is that I believe more saw We Need to Talk About Kevin than the two previous films since Swinton won several critic awards and was nominated for both the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards. Academy voters tend to skew more conservatively and I suspect they couldn't bring themselves to mark their ballots for a performance in a film so distinctly bizarre.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay from a screenplay she and Rory Kinnear adapted from the novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin tells, in a very disjointed fashion, the story of Eva (Swinton), an artist by trade, suburban wife and mother by choice, attempting to come to grips with her guilt over the wreckage caused by her son, Kevin. The movie isn't told in a linear direction, perhaps in an attempt to surprise the audience by dropping out-of-sequence clues like breadcrumbs left to mark a meandering path back out of the woods. However, given the title, the visuals and snippets of scenes that obviously come after the incident happened, it should be clear what kind of horror took place, if only in the abstract and not the specific. The trailer and discussion of the movie pretty well gives it away anyway, so fretting about spoilers seems pointless. However, if you don't know what occurs in We Need to Talk About Kevin, plan to see the film and suspect foreknowledge could ruin that experience, just cease reading this now.
When I described the movie's story as being told in a nonlinear way, that's a bit of an understatement. This isn't simply a film that's not told in chronological order like innumerable works throughout cinematic history such as Orson Welles' Citizen Kane or Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. For one thing, only in director Lynne Ramsay's dreams would We Need to Talk About Kevin be mentioned in the same breath as Citizen Kane or Pulp Fiction, at least as far as quality goes. Secondly, the film has been edited by Joe Bini as if all the movie's scenes had been handed over cut into single frames and then tossed in the air as if someone had asked him if he'd ever played 52 Card Pickup. We don't stay in one spot very long. It makes Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, which I once described as being made for people with the attention spans of gnats, look as if it moved at the pace of Tarkovsky's Solaris. This isn't meant to be complimentary. Bini has edited practically everything Werner Herzog has made both fictional and documentary since Little Dieter Needs to Fly, so this is not his usual style even if he did have to cut the execrable The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans.
It's a shame that Ramsay chose to employ this method to tell the story because it drains We Need to Talk About Kevin of any emotional power. For that matter, it also saps the opportunity to approach the material in any of the myriad ways it hints that it might in the brief segments that will pop up occasionally such as dark satire or horror. It never slows down long enough to explore the idea that Eva's husband Franklin (John C. Reilly, who seems either terribly miscast or was directed to play his role as if he were a clueless parent in a John Hughes film) raises that Eva resented her son Kevin from birth and every time she accuses the little bastard of doing some awful thing, Franklin insists, "He's just a little boy" and buys him fancier and more expensive bow and arrow sets as he ages.
We don't get those conversations in depth though because that would require stopping the fast-forward button and watching a scene play out. It takes their young daughter losing one of her eyes "in an accident" and the 15-year-old Kevin finally showing Dad his callous side for Franklin to catch on that he and his wife should have been on eBay looking for a Dagger of Megiddo to slay their own little Damien. The movie tosses in a brief scene of humor that seems out of place where men come to Eva's door after the high school massacre selling Christianity. One asks if she knows where she's going in the afterlife. "Oh! Yes! I do as a matter of fact. I'm going straight to hell. Eternal damnation, the whole bit. Thanks for asking," Eva replies before shutting the door.
That this chopped-up mess of a movie actually produced two great performances almost makes me believe in miracles. I assume that happened because they filmed scenes whole and then just butchered them later, but they couldn't ruin the performances trapped within. Swinton, as you would expect, delivers one of the two great portrayals. The other bravura turn comes from young Ezra Miller, so good in a completely different type of role in Another Happy Day, who plays Kevin from age 15 on. I also should praise the even younger Jasper Newell, who plays Kevin from ages 6-8. He's very good as well and matches Miller well physically.
As funny as Miller was in Another Happy Day, he's frightening here, even when forced to deliver some of the kitchen sink of topics that get thrown against the wall for a few minutes. Miller gets a good speech where he blames what he did on everyone's favorite target (after violent video games) — television. Never mind that the movie shows no scenes indicating the tube exerted undue influence on Kevin. It's just required to list one of those easy scapegoat favorites: It's the "Why did the teen go mad?" equivalent of Claude Rains' Renault's order in Casablanca to "Round up the usual suspects." Now, it isn't clear if Kevin really is appearing on television or if Eva, who's sleeping on a couch, just dreams his appearance where he says:
"I mean, it's gotten so bad that half the time the people on TV, the people inside the TV, they're watching TV. And what are all these people watching? People like me. And what are all of you doing right now but watching me? You don't think they'd change the channel by now if all I did was get an A in geometry?"
It may be true, but it ain't Paddy Chayefsky. I wasn't the biggest fan of Gus Van Sant's Elephant, but it had more to say coherently about school violence in the post-Columbine era. The brief bit that touched upon the subject in the HBO miniseries Empire Falls packed a bigger punch and came as more of a surprise. Just on a purely realistic level, once we finally see the sequence where Kevin massacres many of his classmates, how in the hell would he have been able to go on that long using a bow and an arrow as his weapon? We're supposed to believe that no one in that school could have swarmed him one of the numerous times he had to load a new arrow which was every time?
The filmmakers behind We Need to Talk About Kevin undermined their film in practically every conceivable way. It's a shame because two talented performers poured their hearts into characters for a film that treated their work as little more than jigsaw puzzle pieces and obviously had no idea in their collective heads what tone they wanted, what message to convey or even if they had any ideas lurking in their skulls at all.
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Thursday, February 16, 2012
The waiting isn't the hardest part
By Edward Copeland
Glenn Close's fascination with the story of Albert Nobbs began in 1982, the same year she made her film debut in The World According to Garp where she vividly brought John Irving's character of Jenny Fields to cinematic life and was robbed of an Oscar for her efforts by Jessica Lange's win for Tootsie, when Lange wasn't even the best supporting actress in Tootsie. Before I watched the film of Albert Nobbs, I hadn't heard many complimentary things about the movie but it surprised me. Much of Albert Nobbs, especially in the earlygoing, plays more as a comedy and a solid ensemble brings its canvas of characters to entertaining life, most notably Oscar nominee Janet McTeer. To be sure, Albert Nobbs contains flaws and, ironically, its biggest weakness lies in the performance of the actress whose perseverance got the film made in the first place.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Albert Nobbs, it began life as a short story by Irish novelist George Moore called "The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs" in 1918 about a woman who lives disguised as a man for 30 years in 19th century Ireland in order to find work. Nobbs finds employment as a waiter at an upscale Dublin hotel and hopes to save enough money to open his/her own shop. A chance meeting with a painter leads Albert to discover another woman who lives as a man and has taken a wife as well, giving Albert the idea that perhaps she should take a bride when she makes her escape as well, setting her sights on a young maid who is having a torrid affair with another worker with plans to escape to America.
Simone Benmussa adapted the short story into a play and directed Close in the starring role in the summer of 1982 in a production presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at Stage I of New York's City Center. Close won an Obie Award for her performance. In the nearly 30 years that followed, Close made it her mission to play the part on film. Close met one of her co-producers, Bonnie Curtis, on the film The Chumscrubber where Close handed Curtis a draft of a screenplay for Albert Nobbs and told her, "I must play this part on the big screen before I die." Now that she finally has achieved that dream, she not only plays Nobbs, Close also co-produced and co-wrote the film as well as the lyrics for an original song sung by Sinead O'Connor over the film's credits.
Albert Nobbs almost came to the screen first under the guidance of Hungary's great director Istvan Szabo (Mephisto) who directed Close in the 1991 film Meeting Venus. She gave Szabo a copy of Moore's short story and soon he handed her the first treatment for an Albert Nobbs movie so he still receives screen credit (though not on the Inaccurate Movie Database) for the treatment along with Moore for his story and Close, John Banville and Gabriella Prekop for screenplay.
In the majority of her duties on Albert Nobbs, Close seems to have performed well. She earned an Oscar nomination for best actress, but a lot of mediocre performances have been nominated (and won) before. Close's take on Albert Nobbs comes off as so stilted and mannered when compared to the performances of everyone else in the cast that she acts as if she's in a different movie. It's only accentuated because the actors and actresses that surround her carry themselves with such ease and that goes for seasoned vets such as Pauline Collins as the hotel's owner, Brenda Fricker as on, Brendan Gleeson, Phyllida Law and newer discoveries such as Mia Wasikowska and Aaron Johnson (the young John Lennon in 2010's Nowhere Boy).
Now, it isn't merely because Close portrays a woman pretending to be a man in the 19th century and Albert Nobbs isn't a comedy, though it does contain a fair amount of humor in it, because Janet McTeer also plays a woman pretending to be a man and she's brilliant. I was fortunate enough to see McTeer live on Broadway as Nora in the 1997 revival of A Doll's House and she was spectacular (and deservedly won the Tony). She wowed again when she earned a lead actress Oscar nomination for her role in the 1999 film Tumbleweeds directed by Gavin O'Connor when he made interesting movies before he turned to junk such as Warrior.
In the lead paragraph, I brought up Tootsie (in a different context admittedly) but Dustin Hoffman's work as Dorothy Michaels in that film is so great because after awhile, you not only forget that it's Hoffman, you believe it's a woman. I wouldn't go that far with McTeer, but I find it more believable that her character of Hubert Page could pass for a man in 19th century Dublin than I could Close's Albert Nobbs. Hell, I'm not sure Nobbs would pass for a human.
You would think when the main character turns out to be a film's major deficit, the film itself would be doomed, but miraculously I enjoyed Albert Nobbs in spite of Albert Nobbs. Somehow, the rest of the cast, the script and the surefooted direction by Rodrigo Garcia (Mother and Child) more than compensate for Close's performance. (It's somewhat ironic because Close gave the only great performance in Bille August's awful 1993 all-star adaptation of Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits that featured the rare bad Meryl Streep performance and a cast that also included Jeremy Irons, Winona Ryder and Vanessa Redgrave.)
I do sense that significant sections of the film were edited out based on the presence of actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers. He plays a viscount who checks into the hotel with his wife. We see one brief scene that shows a naked man waking up in his bed in the morning and then we don't see him again until he and his wife check out. Something must have been left on the cutting room floor. It didn't add anything, so they might as well have cut out all those scenes.
Much of the behind-the-scenes work succeeds at a high level including cinematography by Michael McDonough (Winter's Bone), production design by Patrizia von Brandenstein (Oscar winner for Amadeus) and costumes by Pierre-Yves Gayraud.
Albert Nobbs always will mystify me. I can think of major problems with the film, but I can't dispute the fact that I enjoyed it anyway. In a way, it's sort of a corollary to my idea that the purest test as to whether a movie works for you or not is if your mind wanders and you get bored. Albert Nobbs held my interest and I didn't have an unpleasant time watching it, even if a lot of Glenn Close's acting choices made me cringe. It's sad. I'm surprised that no one has mentioned that when Close loses come Oscar night, that will make her 0 for 6, tying her with Deborah Kerr and Thelma Ritter among actresses with the most nominations without winning (though Kerr's were all in lead and Ritter's were all in supporting while Close splits hers evenly three in each category).
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Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Truth be told, you two are both dragging me down
By Edward Copeland
By the time I finally found myself in a position to watch Shame, my expectations rested on two separate planes. The first, for the film itself, had settled on not anticipating being wowed, based not only on what I'd heard but also because (I must admit) I never managed to make it all the way through director Steve McQueen's first film, Hunger. The other plane existed on a much higher level, formed solely on what I'd witnessed of Michael Fassbender in 2011, giving great performances in movies that couldn't be more different — X-Men: First Class and Jane Eyre. I haven't even had a chance to catch him as Carl Jung in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method. However, I've witnessed many an actor or actress rise above mediocre material and I expected that if Shame turned out to be a subpar film, Fassbender still could deliver a superb performance. Unfortunately, thespians can do only so much with scripts as aimless, pointless and devoid of meaning as Shame. While Fassbender lets it all hang out in service to this lackluster screenplay, Carey Mulligan delivers the film's best performance, far better than Shame deserves, as Fassbender's character's sister.
Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, an Irish transplant to the U.S. who works as an executive in Manhattan. For what kind of business, it's never clearly stated, but it allows Brandon enough free time to leave the office for hours during the day to go to a hotel and have vigorous sex with multiple women. Now, sometimes Brandon does have to stay in the office. You might not be able to smoke inside public buildings in New York anymore, but masturbation breaks seem to be OK. At night, Brandon occasionally carouses with his married boss, David Fisher (James Badger Dale), who doesn't even try to hide his adultery from his employees. However, when loads of particularly nasty paid porn sites turn up on the hard drive of Brandon's work computer, Fisher immediately assumes that someone has hacked into Brandon's account or been using his computer when Brandon isn't there.
Based on the portrait painted in Shame, it seems that nearly all currently living in New York — including the women — carry attitudes toward sex that's more likely to be found in 14-year-old boys, only real 14-year-olds aren't getting laid at this high a percentage and the teens probably display more maturity and hold fewer fears of long-lasting relationships. Yes, I understand that Brandon is a sex addict, but the screenplay by director McQueen and Abi Morgan may depict the life of a sex addict but it never deals with the subject of sex addiction. Imagine a film about a heroin addict and the entire movie consists of the addict shooting up or snorting the drug, showing little in the way of consequence and no discussion of the addiction before the film finishes. That's almost what Shame amounts to as a film. Hell, the TV sitcom Cheers treated sex addiction more seriously and with laughs when in a later season Sam sought treatment for it.
The film's complication, i.e. Brandon's complication, stems from the arrival of his estranged younger sister, Sissy (Mulligan), who crashes at Brandon's apartment because she and her boyfriend are on the outs. Her arrival, according to the production notes and a couple of dialogue scenes inserted to break up the monotony of Brandon's boffing, throws his world into "chaos." As near as I can tell from the movie, chaos for Brandon (as well as McQueen and Morgan) equals having Sissy living in his apartment meaning he must go elsewhere to fuck. Poor baby. What also upsets Brandon is that Sissy gets a booking to sing at a New York club, which Brandon's boss David hears about, forcing Brandon to reluctantly accompany Fisher to see her show. The scene actually ends up being one of the film's few highlights as Mulligan performs the most downbeat version of Kander & Ebb's "New York, New York" you'll ever hear. It's reminiscent of the scene in Georgia when Jennifer Jason Leigh performs Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue." It certainly bears no resemblance to Liza Minnelli's version in Martin Scorsese's film of the same name that introduced the song or Sinatra's recording that immortalized it. Rubbing salt in Brandon's wound about Sissy interfering in his nightlife and his apartment, she and David end up going back to Brandon's place and having loud, boisterous sex, forcing a pissy Brandon to leave.
While visually, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt provides a cool blue tint that comes across as wholly appropriate to the film, Shame suffers from being overscored — not just by the original music composed by Harry Escott but the misuse of lots of Bach, mostly taken from Glenn Gould's recording of "The Goldberg Variations," alongside John Coltrane's instrumental cover of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music, Chet Baker's "Let's Get Lost" and Blondie's "Rapture" — all of which get played at near deafening levels at times to compensate for the largely dialogue-free sections. In a way, Shame sounds as if it's trying to be one of those late-night Skin-emax movies, only employing a classier soundtrack to play over the continuous coitus.
When Shame finally comes to a stopping place, they do allow Brandon and Sissy to have a conversation (more like a fight) to pretend that a point might have been hiding all along. Brandon has had it not being able to screw strangers in his own bed so he orders his sister out, telling Sissy that he's not responsible for her. He didn't give birth to her. "I'm trying to help you," Sissy tells him. "How are you helping me, huh? How are you helping me? How are you helping me? Huh? Look at me. You come in here and you're a weight on me. Do you understand me? You're a burden. You're just dragging me down. How are you helping me? You can't even clean up after yourself. Stop playing the victim," Brandon responds bitterly. I have to agree with Brandon there. The film hasn't given any indication that Sissy has arrived to stage some sort of intervention. Hell, aside for her stumbling upon some live sex chat woman calling out for Brandon on his laptop and walking in on him beating off once, nothing indicates that Sissy has clued in on her brother's lifestyle. Then again, I don't notice much of a mess. "I'm not playing the victim. If I left, I would never hear from you again. Don't you think that's sad? Don't you think that's sad? You're my brother," Sissy declares. No, what's truly sad about this situation is watching talented actors such as Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan attempt to squeeze some sort of emotional truth from a movie that contained nothing but artifice up until that point. Fassbender tries his best, but he's burdened with the heavy lifting since he's in every scene and the shallow script leaves him rudderless. Carey Mulligan comes off looking so much better because her part takes up less time on screen so it's easier to give Sissy life even if the screenplay doesn't provide her any more depth than it does Brandon.
That scene between the siblings toward the end of the movie reinforces what we got a slight glimpse of in an earlier scene where Brandon takes a co-worker named Marianne (Nicole Beharie) out for dinner. She's separated from her husband. While Brandon behaves meek and pliable at the restaurant, accepting every suggestion that either Marianne or the waiter (Robert Montano) makes, relationship talk brings out the opinionated side of him. He tells her that he doesn't believe in relationships — sees no point in them. When Marianne asks him how long his longest relationship lasted, Brandon answers four months. The two part for the night at her subway stop. The next day at work, we see what kind of universe Shame resides in. Marianne expressed a bit of dismissive judgment about Brandon the night before, but he takes her into the break room and kisses her passionately and Marianne willingly skips off from work with him to a hotel for a sexual tryst. This exemplifies the filmmakers' attitude toward pretty much every character in the movie.
The longer I think about Shame, the worse the film gets. If you set out to make a provocative film, it helps to have something to say. Your aim should be to provoke thought, not anger about the time wasted by talents such as Fassbender and Mulligan making it and movie lovers such as me watching it.
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Wayne’s World, released 20 years ago today, began life as a popular Saturday Night Live sketch that was expanded into a feature film and, surprisingly, became a cultural phenomenon. Catchphrases (Excellent! We’re not worthy!) spread like wildfire and the film became a must-see for fear of missing an integral part of American culture. It’s a no-strings-attached romp, but it’s also a frame for some biting commentary on corporate interest as well as some really heartfelt emotional moments. Without any one of these elements, it would not have held the warm spot in our memories that it does.
Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers) and Garth Algar (Dana Carvey) host a cable access show in Wayne’s basement. The show is a testament to doing your own thing. Wayne and Garth talk about what they want to talk about, usually babes, and there’s none of the usual pretension of cable access hosts trying to be more than they are. This makes their show popular in their hometown of Aurora, Ill. Throughout the film, they continually get, “Hi Wayne!” or “Party on!” greetings from anyone they run into. They’re keeping it real, and their audience responds to that. Wayne and Garth just pal around, doing their thing, going to concerts and hanging out with their friends. They’re living the teenage dream, even if they may be technically too old for that.
Then two things happen to throw off the slacker equilibrium. First, Wayne meets Cassandra (Tia Carrere), the woman of his dreams and lead singer for the band Crucial Taunt. Not only is she a total babe, she can totally rock. Second, Ad executive Benjamin Kane (as in Charles Foster?), played by Rob Lowe, sees the show and envisions using it to exploit his account with a video game arcade chain owner. He approaches Wayne and Garth about the show and, although they’re not really interested in changing anything, he convinces them to accept two $5,000 checks ("We got five thousand dol-lars! We got five thousand dol-lars!") and sign a contract. Of course, they can’t understand the contract at all, and they don’t know that they’ve sold the show entirely to Benjamin, who begins to “upgrade” it. The upgrades, of course, demolish everything about “Wayne’s World” that was authentic and appealing.
Meanwhile, Benjamin discovers Cassandra and begins the process of moving Wayne out of the way, because she is indeed a total babe. He can offer her money and fame by way of a legitimate music video. The final act of the movie is Garth and Wayne rallying their forces to get Cassandra seen performing in front of an even bigger producer using information they gleaned earlier that “seemed extraneous at the time.” The idea is to get Cassandra out of Benjamin’s clutches and back into Wayne’s arms. But Cassandra and Benjamin end upon a tropical beach, with Benjamin declaring, “you didn’t think she’d end up with Wayne, did you?” Record scratch, and Wayne and Garth decide to redo the ending with the Scooby-Doo ending as well as the “Mega Happy” ending” in which everyone discusses what they’ve learned.
The plot is…there, in the sense that our heroes have to have an adventure to go on, but the delights are the lines, scenes and references. They really make the movie. Garth has his own dream woman, played by Donna Dixon, who works in the doughnut shop they frequent. He can’t talk to her because just looking at her knocks him out of his chair. (Ow.) It’s a visual representation of what that intense crush-feeling actually feels like. Driving to an Alice Cooper concert (the bribe Benjamin uses to get them out of town so he can move in on Cassandra) Wayne and Garth get pulled over by a police officer played by Robert Patrick of Terminator 2. “Have you seen this boy?” he asks and they drive off in terror. When they get to Milwaukee, they act out the opening credits of Laverne & Shirley. The hits just keep on coming.
The throwback that had the most impact was the early sequence of Wayne, Garth and their friends singing along to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the car. That scene single-handedly put the song from 1975 back at No. 2 on the Billboard chart in 1992. The Wayne’s World scene won Queen an MTV Video Award for best video from a film. Director Penelope Spheeris was unsure that the song fit with Wayne and Garth’s hard-rocking personae, but Mike Myers convinced her it did, and it became a sensation. Wayne’s World may seem to have aged poorly, with the oh-so-'80s fashion and the role of hard metal filled with Jimi Hendrix covers, but it actually anticipated the YouTube generation. Rather than a satellite dish parked in the driveway, we’ve got smart phones and Facebook to serve the same basic purpose. Any of the Wayne’s World catchphrases could be considered some of the earliest memes. The film is also documentary evidence of one of the earliest instances of the “that’s what she said” rejoinder. (On the acting side, Rob Lowe's Benjamin Kane hints at his later performance as perfect human in training Chris Traeger on Parks and Recreation.)
There’s so much to touch on, including Wayne’s totally mental ex-girlfriend Stacy, played by Lara Flynn Boyle, Ed O’Neill at the height of his Married with Children popularity as a creepy doughnut shop worker and Alice Cooper’s educational backstage party. Oh, and the “Ex-squeeze me? Baking powder?” or “Assphincter says what?” For me what makes it work is the heart that holds all the individual jokes together. Wayne and Cassandra’s “camera one, camera two” scene shows the goofy affection of new love to perfection, and when it turns sour, the exchange “Could you be any more insulting?” “Yeah, I could,” has real emotional impact. Kudos to Mike Myers for that moment. A personal favorite is when lying on the hood of the car, Garth asks Wayne if he ever found Bugs Bunny dressed as a girl bunny attractive. Wayne just bursts out laughing, and it’s hard to fake that kind of relaxed laughter you have when you’re just hanging out with your best bud.
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Monday, February 13, 2012
What defines a terrorist act?
By Edward Copeland
Certainly, no one's wording probably would match exactly. There might be some who answer quite literally with a response along the lines of "something designed by a person or group to instill fear in others, usually because of an ideological motive." However, I imagine most replies would involve destruction and the desire to injure and kill. I think a majority of people would have thought that long before we endured the horror of 9/11. The U.S. government's definition of a terrorist organization is far broader and beginning in 1995, the environmental activist group called the Earth Liberation Front was named by the feds as "the No. 1 domestic terrorism threat" for a series of arson fires and other actions ELF took against timber companies and other businesses that they saw as environmental threats. ELF destroyed property, but the group carried out its acts after all people had vacated the structures. No deaths or injuries occurred as a result. Six years later, when the FBI finally broke the case and swept up many ELF members, those accused faced life sentences in the strictest prisons because of the "terrorist" label. The account of one of those ELF members, including interviews with the agents who made the arrests, gets told with a fairly even hand in If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, one of the five nominees for 2011's Oscar for documentary feature.
Though director Marshall Curry had been involved in documentary filmmaking long before this film came about, the way Curry became aware of ELF member Daniel McGowan and the Earth Liberation Front's activities crossed the filmmaker's path in an unusual way. In December 2005, Curry's wife walked in their home to share the shocking news that four federal agents entered her office earlier that day and arrested McGowan, who was one of her employees, for "eco-terrorism." McGowan's arrest wasn't an isolated one for ELF members that day. The federal investigation to crack the case and apprehend members of the cell, few who lived near one another by that time, had dragged on for years. When a break finally was made, the FBI wanted to move swiftly before word could get out to any other members who might go into hiding. The authorities took McGowan and 12 others in various parts of the country into custody that day. According to the director's statement in the documentary's press notes:
"I had met Daniel through my wife, and he did not fit my expectation of what an “eco-terrorist” would be like. He had grown up in Rockaway, Queens, was the son of a N.Y. cop, and had been a business major in college. He didn’t look or talk like a revolutionary, and to me he seemed less like Che Guevara or Malcolm X than a typical 'boy next door.' Whenever reality cuts against my stereotype, and I discover that the world doesn’t work the way I thought it did, I become curious. How had someone like him taken part in these fires and found himself facing life in prison for terrorism? What could lead someone to decide that arson was a reasonable response to environmental problems? How had this shadowy group — the ELF — been formed, and how had the investigators cracked them? Sam Cullman (the film's co-director, co-producer and cinematographer) and I decided to find out."
The film consists of multiple interviews with people such as former ELF member Suzanne Savoie, who also was arrested; Greg Harvey, a detective who helped the feds infiltrate an ELF cell; former U.S. Attorney Kirk Engdall, who prosecuted McGowan; McGowan's wife and family members, including his father, the former New York police officer; and McGowan himself as he lived under house arrest awaiting his trial. If a Tree Falls also uses a lot of archival footage of the ELF attacks, some never seen before, such as when they execute explosions and fire at a SUV dealership.
If a Tree Falls works best on the bigger issue of the government's inability (pardon my punning) to see the forest for the trees. In October 1996, when ELF members, including Jake Ferguson, another key figure in the mass arrests that picked up McGowan, committed their first arsons at two Oregon ranger stations and they earned their label as "the No. 1 domestic terrorism threat" this occurred after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 and concerns over militias as well as the pipe bombs set off by Eric Rudolph earlier in 1996 in Atlanta, most famously at the Olympics. While not domestic in origin, all of these took place after the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993. While what the Earth Liberation Front did were unquestionably criminal in nature, how could anyone confuse them with terrorism? Hell, they hadn't caught or identified the Unabomber yet either.
The documentary also shows how unequally the various ELF defendants were treated in terms of prison sentences. While the government backed away from the original idea that they needed to be locked up forever, huge disparities exist between the treatments of McGowan, Savoie, Ferguson and others. It also seems pretty ridiculous that McGowan because of his case's "terrorist enhancement" is serving his time in a "Communication Management Unit" built for housing terrorists where he is allowed one 15-minute phone call a week and one visit a month through a glass partition. His release isn't scheduled until 2013. Savoie spent four years in a regular prison, the first three of which she was not allowed to go outside. In 2010, she was released to a halfway house. Ferguson, who cut a deal, remains free on probation.
While the film shows remarkable even-handedness in discussions of whether the Earth Liberation Front's goals justify their actions, it lets one opportunity pass by without much comment. In one interview with McGowan, when he's rethinking his involvement with the group and whether what they did accomplished anything that they wanted, he mentions a meeting where an ELF member argued that the group wasn't being radical enough and should target corporations more directly, suggesting taking CEOs as in abductions or killings. If more members discussed things like this and federal investigations had people wired saying as much, perhaps that domestic terrorist threat title had a cause. Still, that wouldn't make EVERY member of ELF of the same ilk, especially someone like McGowan.
In addition to directing If a Tree Falls, Curry co-produced, co-edited and co-wrote the film. Curry's co-writer and co-editor was Matthew Hamachek. Curry and Hamachek won the documentary film editing award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Curry previously was nominated for the documentary feature Oscar for his 2005 film Street Fight about Cory Booker's campaign to become mayor of Newark, N.J. Later, Curry also received a News & Documentary Emmy Award nomination for outstanding continuing coverage of a news story — long form because Street Fight (as is the case with If a Tree Falls) was made for the PBS series POV and aired there after securing Oscar eligibility. With all the renewed loopiness over reforming eligibility for documentary feature based on a review in The New York Times, it seems strange that they allow documentaries to be eligible for both Oscars and Emmys — especially if the order is reversed and something airs on TV anywhere in the world first, it's not eligible for the Oscar.
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front tells an interesting story, but a lot of better documentaries both on and off the Academy shortlist deserved a slot in the final five more.
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“There is a difference between apples and men…really, there is…”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In the '50s, beginning with Winchester ’73 (1950), director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart embarked on a series of eight film collaborations — five of which were Westerns, and those were highly influential in transforming that film genre through exploration of more “adult” themes, tone and content. Mann, who had helmed a number of acclaimed film noirs early in his movie career, used much of that film style in his oaters — featuring cynical heroes and other morally ambiguous characters thrust into an amoral, hostile world, characterized by the use of landscapes to portray the feelings of his protagonists and the futility and emptiness in their lives. Winchester ’73 was a tremendous box-office success for Universal, revitalizing the Western at a time when it served primarily as fodder for B-pictures and Saturday matinee “kiddie fare.”
The second of the Mann-Stewart westerns, Bend of the River (1952), was released to theaters 60 years ago on this date and while the film was not generally well-received by critics at the time, it served as another building block in the maturation of Jimmy Stewart’s acting career. Stewart’s reputation as “the boy next door” would develop a little more tarnish with each successive film he made with Mann, as the characters he played were individuals haunted by incidents from their past and dedicated to avenging a serious wrong done to them. They were so obsessive in achieving these ends that their better natures would drift perilously toward the dark side. Bend of the River is a shining example of how a changing world challenged “men of the west” to choose the respective paths they would continue to walk.
Glyn McLyntock (Stewart) is scouting for a wagon train of settlers on its way to Oregon and in checking the trail ahead, we learn of his outlaw past as a Missouri border raider when he rescues Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from a lynch mob. Both McLyntock and Cole are acquainted with each other’s reputations and cement their friendship when the two of them successfully go after a party of Shoshone Indians who’ve attacked the group of settlers during the night, one of whom wounds Laura Baile (Julie Adams) with an arrow. Though Cole’s intention is to head out to California, he decides to stick around with McLyntock and the settlers (He’s developed feelings for Laura) and follow them to Portland, where they arrange to procure the needed supplies to carry their planned settlement through the winter. They strike a deal with merchant Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie), who will arrange for their provisions to be sent on to their wilderness encampment. Laura will recuperate from her wound in Portland and McLyntock and company will make better time traveling back to their settlement with an assist from riverboat skipper Captain Mello (Chubby Johnson).
As the work toward establishing the settlement gets underway, McLyntock and Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen), Laura’s father, grow concerned that their food supply may run out with winter only six weeks away because the promised provisions still have not been shipped. The two men make the trip into Portland and find the town caught up in the thrall of gold fever, with supplies now fetching 10 times what they previously were worth. As a matter of fact, the settlement’s provisions still sit on the dock — so McLyntock and Jeremy hire some ne’er-do-wells to load them up on the riverboat while they straighten things out with Hendricks. They discover that both Cole and Laura now work for Hendricks (Cole as a pit boss, Laura running the gold scales since she’s “just about the only person he can trust”) and have no intention of leaving Portland. Confronting Hendricks, McLyntock demands delivery of the supplies but Hendricks continues to put him off and he informs Glyn that if he’s not satisfied he’ll gladly offer a refund (knowing he can get much more for the valuable cargo). This results in a shootout in Hendricks’ saloon, and the boat containing the supplies sets off for the settlement with Cole, Laura and riverboat gambler Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson) joining Glyn, Jeremy and the makeshift crew.
Hendricks and his group of flunkies engage in hot pursuit of the riverboat, and plan to ambush our heroes at the point where they have to head ashore to avoid a nearby waterfall. Instead, Glyn and company dock 20 miles upstream from the falls and plot a risky escape over the mountains to get back to the settlement; and while they do their best to make good time, Hendricks and his posse eventually catch up to them. By that time, however, McLyntock and his crew have set up camp and welcome Hendricks and his men with hot lead via a reverse ambush. Hendricks and some of his goons are killed in the shooting, and the rest of them ride off.
Continuing their journey to the settlement, McLyntock, Cole and the rest get approached by a group of miners who desperately need the supplies at their camp and offer $100,000 for the food; Cole, giving into temptation, falls in with the men Glyn and Jeremy hired to help drive the wagons of provisions to the settlement and makes tracks for the mining camp, leaving a bruised and battered Glyn behind without gun or horse. McLyntock eventually catches up to Cole and his men and, with the help of Jeremy, Laura and Trey, runs Cole’s “employees” off and recaptures the supplies. Cole eventually confronts McLyntock and a climactic brawl in a raging river results in Cole’s death, his body carried by the current toward the falls. It is at this point that Jeremy, whose distaste for Cole stemmed from his outlaw past, admits that he was wrong about the possibility of redemption and the four of them arrive in the settlement to receive the well-wishes of the grateful settlers anxiously waiting for their provisions.
Borden Chase’s screenplay for Bend of the River — based on Bill Gulick’s novel Bend of the Snake — is essentially a tale of two men whose past disreputable actions confront them at the crossroads of civilization. Should a man surrender to the reality that “the times are a-changin’” or will he continue to embrace his violent, amoral ways? Stewart’s Glyn McLyntock has done things of which he’s not particularly proud and in order to obtain acceptance from the group that he wants to be part of, he attempts to keep his criminal past a secret. But his history comes to the fore when he rescues Emerson from being hung by vigilantes and in doing so meets his doppelganger; Cole is the man McLyntock would have become had he not decided to take the road of reformation. The movie points out their similarities in many different ways, chiefly the way each man seems to know what the other thinks, much of this reflected in their dialogue. (When McLyntock meets up with Cole during his second trip to Portland and Cole asks what brought him here, both men say in unison, “A very tired horse.”)
Bend of the River transcends its traditional good-bad morality lecturing by introducing characters that succumb to temptation and stray off the straight-and-narrow path during the course of the film. Chiefly among these is Laura Baile, who decides during her convalescence in Portland that her future isn’t in farming and elects to stay in Portland with the persuasive Cole, telling Glyn that life there is “exciting” and that she’s had “a wonderful time.” Trey Wilson, the gambler befriended by the settlers, also seems to change allegiances whenever it’s to his advantage — working for the corrupt Hendricks as a cardsharp in the saloon, and then joining forces with Cole when Emerson double-crosses McLyntock on the trip back to the settlement. The moral compass of the movie, however, is Jeremy Baile, who acts as a stabilizing influence on both of these characters — Laura shows reluctance to confront her father and tell him that she’s decided to stay with Cole (and she eventually comes back to his side after witnessing Cole’s treachery), and Trey sees Cole’s true colors when Emerson starts slapping Jeremy around after learning that he helped the pursuing Glyn acquire a horse. (Trey defends Jeremy by threatening to kill Cole but can't bring himself to do so; wounded by Cole’s bullet, Cole editorializes that Trey was always “too soft.”)
Jeremy’s black-and-white view of the world tells him that a man “can’t change…when an apple’s rotten, there’s nothing you can do except throw it away or it will spoil the whole barrel.” We, of course, know this not to be true — Glyn desperately wants to escape what he once was and settle down in civilization, becoming a rancher/farmer. Mann shows us in Bend of the River glimpses of the man McLyntock used to be, none more tellingly that when Glyn spies Cole being hung by the vigilante mob and he nervously tugs at his neckerchief, then subconsciously wipes his chin at the sight of the rope tied around Cole’s neck. (Toward the end of the movie, as Glyn is being rescued from the current by a “lifeline” thrown to him by Trey, we learn that Glyn’s neckerchief covers up a rope burn that he suffered when he was in a situation similar to Cole’s.) When Cole decides that he can cash in on the miners’ offer and reap a tidy sum by selling them the settlers’ provisions he has, one of his hired goons jump McLyntock but spares the man from killing Glyn, figuring he owes him restitution for saving his life. We then see the cold son-of-a-bitch that once trademarked Glyn when he warns Cole: “You’ll be seein’ me…you’ll be seein’ me…every time you bed down for the night you’ll look back into the darkness and wonder if I’m there…and some night I will be…you’ll be seein’ me…”
Beginning with Bend of the River, every one of the Mann-Stewart Westerns were filmed in Technicolor — allowing audiences to drink in the breathtaking scenery, which in this case came courtesy of cinematographer Irving Glassberg. (As much as I love Bend, I have to say that I’m more partial to the black-and-white cinematography of Winchester ’73, only because it’s more in keeping with Mann’s film noir pedigree.) Screenwriter Chase’s (who co-wrote Winchester, and later worked with Mann on The Far Country) adaptation also is first-rate, with wonderful moments of wry humor sprinkled into the suspenseful action (my favorite is when Cole responds to Glyn’s observation that he’s “still following that star” with “Sometimes it’s better than having a man with a star following you”).
Because Bend of the River was a Universal picture, the studio used many of its contract players in crucial roles and not necessarily to the best advantage: I’m not all that impressed with Rock Hudson (who also was in Winchester ’73) as Trey the gambler (the legend has it that Stewart was so pissed at Hudson’s getting more applause at the movie’s premiere that he vowed never to work with “Ernie” again…and he made good on that promise) and I find the presence of both Julie Adams and Lori Nelson (she’s younger sister Marjie, who has it bad for Hudson’s Trey) amusing only in that both actresses later acted alongside the Creature from the Black Lagoon (Adams in the original, Nelson in the sequel, Revenge of the Creature). But the film is buoyed by the superb performances of Stewart and Kennedy (whose ability to trade off between good guy and bad guy was peerless), not to mention solid character support from favorites Jay C. Flippen, Chubby Johnson, Frank Ferguson, Royal Dano and the controversial Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry — better known to one and all as “Stepin Fetchit” (he plays Johnson’s sidekick). You’ll also see future TV faces in Harry “Colonel Potter” Morgan (as one of the hired guys, billed as “Henry”) and Francis “Aunt Bee” Bavier (as one of the settlers), and old-time radio fans will giggle that Howard Petrie, who served as the announcer for shows starring Jimmy Durante and Judy Canova, plays bad guy Tom Hendricks. (Lillian Randolph, known for her role as “Birdie” on The Great Gildersleeve, also appears briefly as Hendricks’ maid, "Aunt Tildy.")
Six years after Bend of the River, Anthony Mann directed Man of the West, a Western starring Gary Cooper as an ex-outlaw who’s also reformed and become a part of the community in which he now resides and who has been entrusted with the task of hiring a schoolteacher only to meet up with his former gang. The movie, which has quite a cult following, is an interesting “bookend” to Bend of the River in that it offers a glimpse into the life of a man like Glyn McLyntock after he has become “civilized” and it wouldn’t be all that difficult to see Stewart in the Cooper role (his falling out with Mann during the filming of Night Passage sort of put the kibosh on any future collaborations, however). If you’ve seen Man, you might be interested in checking out Bend as a sort of “backstory” and if you haven’t, by all means go with Bend first. It’s long overdue for re-evaluation as one of the examples of the marvelous actor-auteur partnership that was James Stewart and Anthony Mann.
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