Family Movie Night!
undefined on Disney Video
If there were suddenly no more Right Wingers for me to rail against, if they all had their Come to Franklin moment, burned their copies of Atlas Shrugged, foreswore Rush and Fox News, replaced their Bibles with, well, the Bible or, at any rate, started actually reading those parts of it that include what Jesus actually taught, and went off to live lives of contemplation, asceticism, and doing anonymous works of charity, I would probably start railing against…liberals.
And for the same reasons I rail against the Right Wingers.
Their sanctimony, their moral preening, their unquestioning reliance on received wisdoms, their lack of self-awareness, their indulgence of orc logic---that’s the habit of thinking that what you do is by definition good and what they do is by definition bad even when you and they are doing the exact same thing---and concomittally priding themselves on what amounts to the narcissism of little differences, their practiced ability to see what they expect to see, their talent for being wildly impressed by their own arguments, their laziness when it comes to doing even a little homework before offering their opinion, their tendency to offer opinions as if they’re facts they know from doing lots of homework, their reflexive rejections of any arguments that don’t repeat back to them exactly what they already believe, their need to see their own flattering reflection in everything.
Conservatives like to think of themselves as the only possessors of virtue. They’re the only ones who work hard, love their families, love America, and believe in God. Liberals like to think their politics gives them virtue with the corollary being that anyone who doesn’t share their politics and vote as they vote is without virtue. They judge other liberals according to this! The result is the same for both, a groundless assumption of moral superiority and lots of what amounts to praying at the front of the temple.
In short, I would rail against liberals because they are what I dislike about Right Wingers.
As you might be aware, my philosophy of how to get along in life while maintaining sanity and a degree of cheerfulness is: People stink and they are stupid.
I’m serious. This is the secret to my tolerant, forgiving, and kindly disposition. People are a lot more likable and easier to get along with if you don’t expect them to be anything more than what they are.
The difference between conservatives and liberals isn’t always that they’re outraged by different problems. It’s that they have different explanations for and solutions to the problems that outrage them.
But one thing they have in common is a tendency to think the prime solution to every problem is an authoritarian utopianism based on the premise that “The world would be a better if everybody thought and acted just like me.”
Another thing they have in common is not noticing they have this in common. Instead, they think it’s something “They do and I don’t!”
Yeah, yeah, I know. #notallconservatives #notallliberals.
But there are enough of both to make railing against them worth the effort.
One more way some liberals on the internet and many conservatives also on the internet are alike. They approach much of life as a political or economic question. This leads them to read politics into everything. And they generally don’t like what they read.
Normal people don’t do this. They don’t go to a movie to have their politics reaffirmed. They go to a movie for fun and take it for it is. Two hours of diverting storytelling. If their own political views aren’t represented in the story, they don’t miss them. If someone else’s politics are, they usually don’t notice. Think of all the Republicans you know who love It’s a Wonderful Life.
But these liberals and conservatives against whom I’m railing often see only the politics or the absence of the politics or, more specifically, the absence of their own political views, which they need to have validated by the movie in order for them to enjoy it.
I think conservatives are more needy this way, these days. They’ve got themselves convinced they can only enjoy something if it’s politically correct, which then causes them to think that if they enjoyed something it must have been because it was politically correct. Which is why I like to say that there is probably such a thing as a conservative milkshake.
Generally, liberals aren’t quite so insecure and needy, probably because they don’t have to be. Their politics are almost always positively represented. Most books, movies, TV shows, and plays present liberal and progressive values as givens.
And as the Bard says---no, not that Bard. Stephen Colbert---“Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”
But never go to a movie with an out and out leftist.
At any rate, considering all that, that these conservatives think they possess all the virtues, that they think liberals are the only Authoritarian Utopians, that they need to see their politics validated on screen, and that they think that if they enjoy something it must be celebrating conservatism in some way (Again, the conservative milkshake.), it’s no wonder they’re cheering The Giver as a conservative movie.
And for all I know, they’re right and it is.
I don’t know and I’m not going to know. I’m not going to see it, because it sounds dreary.
The Giver is based on a 1993 science-fiction book of the same name by Lois Lowry. It is set in a dystopian future, where an all-powerful government has eliminated all love, color, music, art, dissent and difference; every aspect of life is centrally-controlled by an elite cabal, and humanity has been forced to give up even the memory of individuality. One quote in particular from the film resonated with the film’s rightwing fans; spoken by Meryl Streep’s character, the sinister and all-controlling Chief Elder, who delivers the line straight to camera with intense menace: “when people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong.”
Know what else it sounds?
The theme as summarized by the Guardian is very close to the themes of Brave New World, 1984, and Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron”, none of which were written by someone you’d call a conservative.
Well, some conservatives would call Orwell a conservative, but that gets back to the conservative milkshake. If they liked it or agreed with it, it must be conservative.
They’re the same way abut Martin Luther King Jr and John Kennedy.
Also…this is a conservative movie? I think if you asked women and LGBT people they’d tell you the dystopia depicted in The Giver sounds to them like the world conservatives are trying to create in the states where they control the legislatures and courts.
And if you ask the young teenagers who love the book and its sequels and are the intended audience for the movie, they’ll tell you This is just the way adults are. They tell you it’s all for your own good but they’re really trying to make you grow up into unhappy and boring versions of their own unhappy and boring selves.
I don’t know what the novel’s author Lois Lowry’s politics are. I don’t know what director Philip Noyce’s politics are. I do know that the movie’s adult stars, Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges, aren’t conservatives but they’ve never seemed to let their politics decide their choice of movie roles.
It’s possible The Giver is every bit as conservative as its conservative fans need it to be. It’s more likely that it’s the case that the movie’s theme isn’t either conservative or liberal just humanist and something we can all agree on---there are people who when they get power use it to squeeze the joy out of everything. Totalitarianism is neither exclusively Right Wing nor Leftist, and sometimes it’s neither and sometimes it’s both.
And not all totalitarians are in politics or wield power on a large scale. Some tyrannize nations. Many tyrannize households, churches, classrooms, offices, loading docks, store aisles, and factory floors.
Speaking of praying in public at the front of the temple. For me, The Giver is just one more reason I thank God he did not make me a conservative.
How much fun are you having at the cineplex if your feel good movie of the year is about how everything is going to hell in a handcart and it’s all because of Meryl Streep?
Guardians of the Galaxy is the most sentimental of the Marvel comic book movies going back to the days before Stan Lee’s first cameo.
Oh, sure, you could say it’s one of the most fun, one of the funniest, one of the most action and thrill packed, a rousing adventure tale, an old-fashioned pirate movie set in space that’s the pirate movie the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie almost was, a better Star Trek movie than either of J.J. Abrams’ reboots, the best Star Wars movie that isn’t a Star Wars movie (with the added virtue that ancient weapons and hokey religions don’t figure in the fun), a sci-fi Western that will make fans think this was what Buckaroo Banzai and Firefly were leading up to.
You could say all that. Plenty of people have said all that or much of it. Many of you already know all that.
I’m going with sentimental because it’s the critical path less traveled and because it’s true. Guardians of the Galaxy is the most sentimental of Marvel comic book movies because it’s the one with the most real sentiment.
Honesty of emotion isn’t a requirement for a good comic book movie. It’s usually enough just to suggest feelings so that we know our heroes are human and have hearts that are in the right places and the villains aren’t and don’t. The idea is to engage our emotions so that we feel we have a rooting interest in the characters and their fates and aren’t just along for a virtual thrill ride. So directors and screenwriters and actors use tricks to trigger emotional responses. We’re willingly fooled into sympathizing through the manipulation of conventions, tropes, and clichés we’ve been trained by television and movies to respond to with laughter, anger, and tears on cue. And that’s fine. There isn’t time for serious character development in these movies, anyway. We’re not in the theater to see that either. As long as the tricks work, we don’t mind that it’s really us doing the feeling not the characters seeming to come alive on screen.
In a few comic book movies, in the best ones, something more happens. Because of good writing, good directing, and/or good acting, the prime and priming emotions are up on the screen. But it’s usually incidental. It’s not the point and, like I said, it’s not why we bought tickets.
The only exceptions I can think of are Spider-Man 2, which was great, and Iron Man 2, which was…not great.
Peter Parker’s emotional breakdown over his ambivalence about being Spider-Man is just more compelling and affecting than Tony Stark’s emotional breakdown over his ambivalence about being Iron Man, plus there’s the tragedy of Doctor Otto Octavius.
The only exceptions before Guardians of the Galaxy.
It’s not just that our heroes’ emotional development isn’t beside the point. It is the point. Guardians of the Galaxy is about our heroes’ developing feelings, towards and about each other and within themselves. Almost everybody with more than four lines, good guys, bad guys, and guys in between, is motivated by bonds of affection. Even the arch-villain Thanos who is indifferent to the wiping out of the populations of entire planets cares about his adopted daughters.
But it’s the developing bonds of affection between the five heroes---anti-heroes---who become known, at least to themselves, as the Guardians of the Galaxy that is at the center of the movie, gives it its heart, and drives the story.
Maybe I should put it this way to make it simple. Guardians of the Galaxy is as much a movie about friendship as Toy Story.
I think the climactic battle may even include a visual quote from Toy Story 3, but you can’t always go by me. I have a habit of reading into things, as you’ve probably noticed.
The reason the movie isn’t trite and hokey and overly-sentimental is the same reason Toy Story isn’t trite and hokey. It’s a well-written, well-directed, well-made, genuinely funny comedy.
All the Marvel comic book movies are funny. They’re full of wisecracks, one-liners, witty repartee, visual gags, and moments of pure slapstick. But most of the humor is an aside to the action. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the humor is often the source or the point of the action. The movie starts out on a somber and, frankly, sentimental note, with a scene guaranteed to make mothers cry, but in the very next scene director James Gunn announces his intentions. From here on out, we’re in it more for the laughs than the tears.
Guardians of the Galaxy is an origin story and origin stories are inherently comic because they are about the arrival of the hero and the hero’s job is to restore order. Things can take a tragic turn later. But for now, things are going to send or at least come to a rest happily. Gunn makes no bones about it. We’re headed for a happy ending. The fun and suspense is how we’re going to get there, what’s going to get in the way the Guardians have to do to overcome the obstacles and keep moving towards that happy ending.
This isn’t to say it’s all sweetness and light.
You can’t have a real comedy without the real possibility of real tragedy. Darkness threatens throughout, and all but one of the Guardians are suffering from heartbreak and loss. As Rocket Raccoon says, trying to brush away a claim on his sympathy along with his own pain and self-pity, “Boo hoo. Everybody’s got dead people!”
Let’s start where the movie starts, with Peter Quill’s dead people. Quill is the main character and eventual leader of the Guardians, the one among our team of heroes for whom the prefix anti- is the least apt. Not inapt. He’s a thief and a pirate, a scoundrel, rogue, and cad who makes Han Solo in the original Star Wars look like a gentleman of principle. But he’s the only one (at first) without murder in his heart and who feels any responsibility towards other living beings. When the job of saving the galaxy falls into his lap, he takes it on with only a token show of reluctance. He comes up with a plan, or “twelve percent of a plan”, and sets to work convincing the others to join him.
Still, he is an outlaw, proud of it, and vain of his reputation as one, a reputation that doesn’t reach as far as he thinks it should. When he announces who he is using the outlaw name he believes his known by across the galaxy, Star-Lord, it usually turns out the people he expects to be cowed by it have never heard it or heard of him. Then they can’t get it right.
His saving grace is his dead people, his mother. (Who and what his missing father is is a mystery that probably won’t be solved until Guardians of the Galaxy 3!) Quill was raised by space pirates who kidnapped him from earth in 1988 when he was a little boy on the night his mother died. He’s been carrying around with him ever since his Walkman and the awesome mix tape---that’s what it says on the label, “awesome mix tape.”--- of her favorite songs from the 1970s and early 80s she made for him and he plays it constantly. It’s the soundtrack of his life and adventures and the voice of his mother imparting her wisdom and goodness, proving that rock and roll is a joyful and moral force, as well as helping to give Guardians of the Galaxy a terrific soundtrack of its own.
As played with great good humor and a dancer’s as well as an athlete’s physical grace---he’s got some moves---by Chris Pratt, in the role that will likely make him a star, Quill has a careless charm and a surfer dude’s way too easy-going, take life as it comes languidness that distracts from an intensity of feeling, energy, and intelligence that make him dangerous and immensely attractive. Pratt has a way of looking simultaneously vacant and thoughtful that lets us see why Quill is both good at what he does and easy to underestimate and even forget. It depends at what angle and at what moment you catch him whether you see the laid-back rogue or the focused hero.
The other Guardians are more emotionally twisted and tangled if not as complicated or puzzling.
Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is one of the adopted daughters of the arch-villain Thanos I mentioned earlier. Biologically re-engineered, she’s a trained assassin and soldier of fortune hired out by Thanos, along with her adopted sister Nebula, also an assassin but more formidable, being a cyborg, to the movie’s other arch-villain, Ronan the Accuser played by Lee Pace adding to the rogue’s gallery of hammy villains he began in Lincoln and continued in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, has his dead people, his father and, as he likes to say, his father before him, and he invokes them frequently to justify the grudge he’s holding against an entire planet. Ronan sends Gamora on a mission to retrieve a thing called an infinity stone that will give him the power to indulge his favorite past-time, mass murder, on a galaxy wide scale.
But Gamora, unlike Nebula, has a conscience and a sense of self-worth that’s driving her to rebel against Ronan and Thanos. She has a secret plan to keep the infinity stone for herself and either sell it for a bundle or use it to kill Ronan and Thanos, whichever works out. As it happens, the stone is in the hands of Peter Quill who, of course, doesn’t know what he has is hands on. As far as he knows, it’s just a lumpy metal ball he contracted to steal for someone else, which is to say, to him it’s just a payday, and he’s more than a little surprised when Gamora shows up, ready and eager to kill him if she has to, to take it from him.
Meanwhile, Rocket Raccoon---and by now you’ve probably heard that one of our heroes is a raccoon, a cgi creation with the voice of Bradley Cooper---a bounty hunter with an apparently thoroughly mercenary view of life and a fondness for high-caliber weaponry, has been hired to retrieve Peter Quill. Rocket shows up, along with his only friend who’s also his houseplant slash muscle, a seven foot tall animated tree named Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), at the same time as Gamora, intending to bag and pack Quill for delivery to his employers. This leads to one of the most exciting and funniest scenes in the movie, a round-robin of brawls, captures, and escapes ending with all four of the in the custody of the police who send them straight off to a maximum security prison in space where at this point we can’t help feeling they all, including Quill, belong.
In prison, they meet Drax the Destroyer, hulking elaborately tattooed tower of rage played with an endearing mix of sincerity and literal literal-mindedness by former WWF star Dave Bautista, who will become the fifth member of the team, when they finally get around to admitting they are a team. Drax’s wife and daughter were murdered by Ronan and since then Drax has been aimlessly touring the galaxy inflicting violence on all and sundry as he works out his guilt and grief, psyching himself up for a confrontation with Ronan, in which, alone, he’ll be hopelessly outmatched, which he knows and which explains why he’s taking a long and roundabout route to finding Ronan.
The five conspire to escape from prison together, their teaming up inspired by the fact that Quill’s lumpy metal ball, sold to the right person, will fetch them a fortune that split five ways will still make each of them rich beyond dreaming, and now the real action begins.
And I don’t mean the escape scene, another exciting mix of thrills, spills, chills, and laughs. And I don’t mean the plot that unfolds of trying to sell the ball and then having to stop Ronan and save the galaxy.
I mean the forming of their friendship.
The Avengers treated fans to the teaming up of some favorite superheroes, but in the end that’s all the Avengers are, a team. Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man learn to admire and respect and depend on one another, but they don’t become friends. (Bruce Banner and Tony Stark do, but we don’t find that out for certain until Iron Man 3.) They don’t need to. But the Guardians of the Galaxy can’t exist until they become friends. They can’t do anything good without each other and, as it turns out, they can’t do without each other. This is what I mean when I say Guardians of the Galaxy is a sentimental movie. It’s about the development of feeling, care, sympathy, and understanding between characters who aren’t heroes or aren’t heroes yet. They’re just people trying to cope.
Saldana is dynamic, thoroughly physical, intense, and surprisingly and beguilingly vulnerable as Gamora. Bautista is surprisingly lovable and funny without being at all clowning as Drax. Rocket is a scene-stealing dynamo both as a work of animation and in the work of Cooper who’s clearly having a ball not having to be Bradley Cooper and playing the sort of role it’s unlikely anyone would hire Bradley Cooper to play. Cooper gives Rocket a harsh, angry, old-fashioned movie tough guy with a cream puff of heart voice that I wouldn’t have expected out of him but which I suspect he’s been working on for his own amusement since he was a kid watching cartoons.
But the big surprise and delight is Groot. Diesel makes the most of the few words Groot has at his disposal---as Rocket explains to Quill “he don't know talkin' good like me and you, so his vocabulistics is limited to ‘I’ and ‘am’ and ‘Groot, exclusively in that order.” Quill predicts that that seemingly narrow combination of syllables will wear thin fast but in fact it doesn’t. Not for us, at any rate. Diesel uses those three little words in a variety of wonderfully expressive ways. We may not understand him when he speaks but whenever Rocket translates we know immediately that that’s exactly what Groot said.
The cgi work is just as expressive.
Another thing that makes Guardians of the Galaxy different from previous comic book movies is that it features more fully realized supporting and minor characters. These include John C. Reilly’s unflappably good-natured chief of security on the planet Ronan makes his main target, Glenn Close as the no-nonsense leader of the planet, Karen Gillan as Gamora’s implacable sister Nebula, Christopher Fairbank as a prissy fence known as the Broker, Benecio del Toro as a character I can’t begin to explain, you’ll just have to see him for yourself to get the idea, and the stand-out Michael Rooker as Yondu, the space pirate captain who abducted the young Peter Quill from Earth. Yondu loves Quill as the son he never had. He still has to kill him, understand. Business is business and a pirate captain has to do what a pirate captain has to do. But he loves the guy.
Obviously, I enjoyed the movie. I’ve been asked, though, by somewhat dubious others if they’d like it, considering they haven’t read any of the comics and don’t know the characters and their backstories. My answer is, I did and I didn’t.
Guardians of the Galaxy is the first comic book movie I went into cold without a previous rooting interest in the heroes. The comic didn’t exist when I was a comic book-reading kid and our sons weren’t fans before the movie was in the works.
I knew nothing and don’t feel like I need to know anything more than what the movie told me.
And I think that’s one of the best thing you can say about any movie.
Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn, written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman. Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, John C. Reilly, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, and Glenn Close. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.
In the novels of John le Carre, the spy game is a tawdry, debasing, corrupting, soul-curdling, heartbreaking, while you still have a heart---over time it shrivels the heart inside you when it’s not taking it right out of you---conscience-deadening business. No one who gets into and no one whose life is touched by it survives without their principles and sense of self-worth shredded. Except for George Smiley, of course.
Smiley pays a price. There’s his purgatorial marriage to Lady Ann, for a start. It’s never clear if it’s a punishment or a penance he’s assigned himself. Whichever, he seems to accept that their mutual unhappiness is his fault and it’s somehow connected to his work as a spy. But he survives, that is, he continues to do his job while holding on to some of his principles and not totally compromising others. He’s able to do this because he’s the most competent agent in British Intelligence and he’s able to be that because he’s the most modest person in the service, at least the most lacking in vanity and careerist ambitions. What ambition he does have is inextricable from his commitment to doing his job well and if that means seeking and obtaining promotion, that’s fine. Moving up (or over or across or back, as necessary. A career as a spymaster is a chess game.) isn’t self-aggrandizement as it is for the likes of a Percy Alleline. It’s taking steps towards finishing the job, being finished with it, the ultimate goal being to make spying unnecessary by defeating his Soviet counterparts and helping to bring the Cold War to an end.
If there are others like George Smiley in le Carre’s universe, one of them is not Gunther Bachmann, the German spy heading a secret and only quasi-official anti-terrorism unit in Hamburg who is a main character in le Carre’s 2008 novel A Most Wanted Man and the main character in Anton Corbijn’s film adaptation now in theaters and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his final movies as Bachmann.
Bachmann might like to be, like Smiley, that is, if he knew who Smiley was and what he’d accomplished and how he’d accomplished it. But if he does, he’s temperamentally disqualified. For one thing, he has little of the necessary modesty. He’s vain of his skills, his intelligence, and his achievements. And he lacks the patience, for another. That’s partly due to the nature of his current assignment which is to identify and thwart imminent terrorist attacks, preferably by breaking up plots before the plotters even know what they’re plotting themselves. But it’s also due to his still being in mid-career. We know from hints dropped in the novels and TV and film adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People that at a similar point in his life Smiley hadn’t yet learned to take a longer, more objective view. The significant difference between Bachmann and Smiley, however, is that Bachmann is personally ambitious. Not to move up. To move out.
Bachmann is in Hamburg doing what he’s doing because something went terribly wrong at his last station in Beirut. We’re not told exactly what, except that it involved meddling by the CIA, against whom Bachmann now holds a grudge and whom he already despised as bloodthirsty and incompetent. But he also blames himself for having let himself be outfoxed by those bloodthirsty incompetents at the cost of the lives of several of his assets and operatives.
Bachmann is looking to restore his reputation in the hope of winning a new assignment out in the field where the real action is but also where he’ll be out of the reach of interfering superiors, politicians, and diplomats and freer to operate as he knows he knows best how to do. But he also wants to be where the people he’s spying on, deceiving, manipulating, betraying, and sacrificing to the cause aren’t his fellow Germans and innocents.
The bitter irony is that to get to that place he has to spy on, deceive, manipulate, betray, and sacrifice fellow Germans and innocents.
This doesn’t make him feel guilty, at least not that guilty. It makes him more determined to do it in order to get what he wants sooner.
This time out, there are three innocents he’s about to make use of, two German citizens and one who wishes to become a citizen.
That third innocent may not be that innocent: Issa Karpov (Grigory Dobrygin), the illegitimate son of a Soviet general and the fifteen year old Chechen girl he raped but then professed to have fallen in love with. She died shortly after Issa was born, but the general took care of their son, or at any rate paid for him to be taken care of, and then made him his heir. A pious Muslim, having been raised in his mother’s religion, who makes a show of his piety, Issa has sneaked into Germany after his release from the last of the several prisons where he spent a good part of the years since 9/11 when he was not spending them with various jihadist groups in the Middle East. He’s come to lay claim to his inheritance which his father secretly deposited in a Hamburg bank. He insists he doesn’t want the money, which for good reason he considers dirty, for his own use. The question is, then, what does he want it for? To give to charities that will help the Chechen people his father waged war upon or to funnel it to militant Islamists here in Germany or in the Middle East?
Bachmann doesn’t much care where the money might be going. If it’s going to be used to fund terrorists, he’ll put a stop to it, of course. But it’s better for his purposes if Issa plans to give it away, because Bachmann knows just where it should end up, in the accounts of his real target, a philanthropist who almost certainly skims from the many charitable organizations he advises and directs to send to terrorist groups around the world. Almost certainly.
Bachmann plans to use Issa and his money to learn for absolutely certain. That is, he plans to use Issa as bait for a trap.
The other two innocents Bachmann makes his pawns are not as innocent as they should be, either, or at any rate their consciences aren’t as clear as they’d like, which makes them both vulnerable to Bachmann’s manipulations: Issa’s idealistic lawyer, Annabelle Richter (Rachel McAdams), an attorney for an organization called Sanctuary North dedicated to helping immigrants obtain residency, citizenship, and, if they need it, political asylum, and a lovelorn banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) who finds himself caught up in Issa’s story because his bank is the front for a illegal shadow bank set up near the end of the Cold War by Brue’s father to launder money stolen by corrupt Soviet politicians and high-ranking military officers and stash it away for them for the day when they need to get out of Russia while the getting is good. One of those secret depositors was Issa’s father, and Tommy Brue’s bank is the repository for a fortune that Brue feels duty-bound to hand over to Issa, provided Issa decides that he wants it and the police don’t nab Issa beforehand.
Going in to the theater, I was wondering how Corbijn and screenwriter Andrew Bovell had gone about trying to turn a rather talky novel into a satisfying work of visual storytelling. Le Carre’s A Most Wanted Man is built upon extensive conversations and internal monologs in which characters tell each other what has happened and what is going to happen and the reasons for both. Most of the exciting and dramatic action takes place within quotation marks, that is, it takes place in a reported past, and that reporting is often second and third-hand. That’s where the more interesting and dynamic characters, Issa’s and Brue’s fathers, live too, in the past. (In the novel’s present, both are several years dead.) This works fine on the page. A story told within a story being told works on readers’ imaginations just as if it comprised a novel all on its own. But on screen characters talking about the past are just characters talking about the past. Makes for dull viewing. So I expected Corbijn and Bovell would resort to extensive flashbacks.
That isn’t what they did.
The focus is all on the present with the working out of Bachmann’s personal dilemma becoming the driving force behind the narrative. Tension and suspense build out of the questions of how ruthless he’ll be in pursuing his goals and whether or not he’ll do the right thing in the end, because he really is one of the good guys and doing his job right and doing the right thing are the same for him as they are for George Smiley. His problem is, like I said, he’s not a George Smiley.
One of his problems.
Another problem is that he may not have time to do what he needs to do, right or not. He’s competing with the state police, other spy agencies, and, once again, the CIA for Issa and the right to claim his money. The cops just want to make headlines. The other spies don’t let Bachmann in on their agendas. All he knows is that politics and politicians are involved and that always means trouble for him. But the CIA, in the ingratiating and seemingly reasonable and cooperative person of a senior analyst played by Robin Wright in an unconvincing short black wig with a sweep of scythe-sharp bangs slashing across her forehead, wants to do what the CIA did a lot in the Bush years. So we’re put into the position of rooting for Bachmann even as we suspect we won’t like what he does.
This approach doesn’t require much of a change from the Bachmann of the novel to the Bachmann on the screen. It does require significant changes in the characters of Annabelle Richter and Tommy Brue, changes that diminish them as admirable human beings but make them more dramatically useful and, not so oddly, more sympathetic by making them more vulnerable to Bachmann’s scheming and manipulations.
As Annabelle, McAdams has the difficult task of acting out from behind the tangled tresses of her long golden blonde hair. The hair is perfectly in keeping with her character or, rather, it’s a perfect expression of her character, a spoiled rich girl rebelling against her establishmentarian family by playing at being a radical lawyer trying not to look like a spoiled rich girl rebelling against her family by playing at being a radical lawyer. It would probably have been a more effective disguise if she just dressed like a lawyer instead of a grad student who’s planning the next several days holed up in the library in a determined effort to complete a draft of her dissertation, a style choice that sends confusing messages to Issa and Tommy Brue.
In the novel, Annabelle isn’t rebelling against her family, she exemplifying a family trait of taking things a few steps farther than other people in the same situation are content to. It’s not enough for her brother the psychiatrist to be a Freudian, he has to be the Freudian’s Freudian. As a liberal lawyer, it’s not enough for Annabelle to champion underdogs, she has to take on the most wretched and hopeless clients. She’s a much tougher nut than her movie counterpart. Her exploitable vulnerability is in her shaken self-confidence. She recently failed to save a client from deportation. And now she’s constantly undermining herself with the fear she’ll fail Issa in the same way.
But that version of Annabelle only makes sense in the context of her family who are characters in the book but for whom there is no room in a two-hour movie.
McAdams’ Annabelle is immature, naive, more emotional than coolly intellectual in a lawyerly way. Her commitment to her work seems more an adopted attitude than to have a real passion as its source. And she’s way out of her depth. She knows it too and, while her self-doubting counterpart in the novel feels desperately in need of help, this Annabelle is desperate to be saved from a predicament of her own making. Which makes her an easy mark for Bachmann who recognizes that what she wants is to have the whole problem taken out of her hands.
The Tommy Brue of the novel is the jovial, bluff, outgoing son of an expatriate Scot whose heart is still in the highlands. He’s competent, canny, and knows his business, and, more important, knows his customers’ businesses. He’s somebody you’d gladly trust with your Euros. But there’s something a little off. His wife despises him. He’s hopeless with his difficult and neurotic daughter, and he’s so immediately and completely smitten with Annabelle, who is less than half his age, that despite his having been married twice and having a grown daughter, he appears to have not even a teenager’s clue as to how to relate to a woman. At first glance, he comes across as charmingly young for his age, in body and at heart, but it turns out not be as much the attractive youthfulness of a man enjoying an extended prime but the pathetic boyishness of someone who’s never really grown up. And no wonder. All his life, Tommy Brue (and note how he goes by a little boy’s nickname) has been defined in other people’s eyes and in his own as another, better man’s son.
Even now, with his father seven years dead and himself running the bank for as long, he still sees himself as answering to the man he refers to as Edward Amadeus and not father, papa, or dad. When thinking his way through a problem, he’s in the habit of addressing Edward Amadeus, practically holding dialogs between himself and the old man’s ghost, essentially asking for the ghost’s advice and permission to do whatever it is Tommy thinks needs to be done.
Again, as with the Annabelle of the novel, we have a character who only makes sense in the context of his family. But Tommy’s daughter is never seen or heard from and barely mentioned. His contemptuous way appears in one brief scene only to express her contempt. And Edward Amadeus is only a stick to beat the plot along, a piece of exposition produced when required to explain the action not an active participant in the unfolding of his son’s personal drama popping up through the stage floor to intone “Remember!”
And while you’d expect that Tommy, the novel’s Tommy, to be played by someone big, hearty, and full of good cheer, he appears on screen in the small, shrunken-looking, and sad-eyed form of Willem Dafoe who plays him as a weak, self-doubting, fraud or at least a fraud in his own eyes. We hardly need the scene with the contemptuous wife. This Tommy Brue is clearly a man used to living with the knowledge that he’s contemptuous and who believes he deserves it.
The novel’s Tommy at sixty is still as devoted to his father and in awe of him as he was at twelve and he’s determined to do right by the old man’s memory, which means seeing things through as he thinks Edward Amadeus would have wanted even though that means making himself complicit in his father’s crimes and by extension Issa’s father’s far worse crimes. It’s not so much a case of the sins of the father being visited upon the son as the son volunteering to complete the transgression.
If there’s a dead father haunting the movie Tommy, it’s not one who commands respect and obedience based on love and respect, but one who terrifies based on a lifetime of bullying and abuse. And that’s the ghost Bachmann channels as he sizes Brue up as a beaten man who expects, even needs to be bullied.
It’s a rare treat, but also a bit disconcerting, to see Dafoe playing a character so completely without menace and, apparently, meanness, also without any inner reserves of strength, a weak man whose facade of competence and superiority is easily cracked. revealing a moral coward who it’s no trouble to embarrass, rattle, and cow. It was probably even more fun for me because I’d just rewatched The Grand Budapest Hotel in which his character is the embodiment of menace and meanness. But, again, still disconcerting. A part of me kept asking What evil’s at work here that this can be to Willem Dafoe?
Issa is pretty much what he is in the book, as much a puzzle and a challenge for audiences as he is for readers and for Gunther. It’s intrinsic to his character that he deflects sympathy. Simultaneously resistant to all efforts to help him and abjectly compliant and too stubbornly withdrawn to explain himself either way, he’s inscrutable, hard to figure, harder to like, self-righteous, full of his own sense of superior virtue, a sullen version of Dostoevsky’s Idiot Prince Myshkin, reflexively holding himself up as a moral example that he makes so unattractive no one wants to live it up to it even if they could.
Issa is taciturn, wary, unforthcoming. He’s not monosyllabic, but he uses as few sentences as possible and speaks haltingly as if not just thinking over each word but as translating them through his first two languages, Russian and Turkish, before delivering them in German. Dobrygin, who captures Issa’s tensed, spidery figure as described by le Carre in the novel, does most of his acting through his mournful, questioning, accusatory eyes. But when, to disguise himself, Issa’s forced to shave his beard, to his humiliation and shame, revealing Dobrygin’s own very boyish face, the mournfulness to outright sadness and pain, the questioning becomes a beseeching: “Please don’t hurt me anymore. I’m trying so hard to be good.” His whole aspect is that of a hurt little boy trying to be brave while abjectly expecting a whipping.
Which is natural considering the scars on his back from his stints in the prisons where he was torture. Issa is someone who had to withdraw so far into himself as his only defense against torture that he can’t climb out again. The little boy lostness of his expression and demeanor is what remains of the man who is lost to himself. The lost little boy would be easier to pity, however, if he wasn’t such a moral scold and quite possibly a once and future terrorist.
It may be that in using Issa Bachmann is also saving him from himself.
Which brings me to Hoffman as Bachmann.
I suppose it would have been fitting if this was one of Hoffman’s greatest performances and he’d gone out at the very top of his game. But that’s a sentimental notion and unnecessary to his legacy. In A Most Wanted Man he does what he did best throughout his career, create an entirely new person distinct from every other character he played and to do it without showiness or show-offiness and, seemingly, without effort. As he plays him, Bachmann is irritable, impatient, prone to bullying not just assets like Tommy Brue and Annabelle Richter but his superiors and his rivals in other agencies, people he should be placating if he wants to get his career back on track. He has his tender side and shows he had and probably still has a heroic one. But he’s relentless and ruthless and for the most part deliberately difficult to like and even more difficult to figure, probably because he doesn’t seem to much like himself or have himself at all figured out. Hoffman’s Bachmann is a protagonist hard to root we root for anyway because he is so confoundedly human.
Corbijn makes Hamburg a dark and guilty place. It’s as gritty and full of shadows and fog as the London of Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy but an even more oppressive, comfortless, and paranoia-inducing city and a more congenial home to spies and other villains because it’s lacking George Smiley.
What it has is a Gunther Bachmann and he and his people are lost in the gloom.
Retrieved from the dark and guilty place known as the archives: From January 2012, my review of Aflredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy starring Gary Oldman as George Smiley.
A Most Wanted Man directed by Anton Corbijn, screenplay by Andrew Bovell, based on the novel by John le Carre. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, and Grigory Dobrygin. Rated R. Now in theaters.
Just dawned on me. I may have seen more movies starring Robin Williams than movies starring any other contemporary actor. Since I reposted my review of Moscow on the Hudson, The Terrible Loneliness of Being Free, when director Paul Mazursky died last month, in honor of Williams, here’s my review from 2007 of a lesser known film of his but one I really like, The Big White.
The Big White, starring Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, and Giovanni Ribisi, is set in a post-Northern Exposure movie and tv show dreamland where quirky characters living in quaint and eccentric small towns stumble half-comically, half-sadly through small misadventures, searching for a modest bit of happiness and at least a glimmer of understanding about how to make their lives a little better.
You Can Count On Me, The Station Agent, Garden State, Doc Hollywood, Fargo, Mumford, Sunshine State, Cookie’s Fortune—Cookie’s Fortune is an interesting case because it was Altman’s influence on TV ensemble dramas like MASH, Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere that made Northern Exposure possible, which makes Cookie’s Fortune a case of influence as a game of telephone, the original message circling back on itself.
Some of these movies are darker than others, depending on how much to the fore they allow the facts of death and violence and the worst of life’s evils and sorrows. But, setting aside Fargo, even in the darkest of them, and The Big White is among the darkest, the main characters, even the villains, are fairly decent and well-meaning types who don’t wish each other harm. Conflict arises from the clashing interests of if not good then not really bad people forced to act selfishly to save themselves or those they love from troubles that have come about simply because what’s good for one person may be bad for another. It’s not a case of good guys versus bad guys, but trying-to-be good guys struggling to do what’s right for them against other trying-but-maybe not trying-as-hard-to-be good guys struggling to do what’s right for them.
Life is hard enough, these movies seem to be saying, even when it’s apparently going well, that for an hour and a half or two hours it’s ok for us to worry about the problems of some characters who aren’t threatened by war, natural disasters, or grinding poverty.
Life is hard enough for Paul Barnell. Barnell (Williams) is the owner of a failing travel agency. He’s up to his ears in debt. He has no prospects for digging himself out. There’s no one he can turn to for help. But his biggest problem, the one that may have partly caused the others by forcing him to take his focus and energy away from running his business, is that his wife, Margaret (Hunter), whom he adores, has gone crazy, and she shows signs of going even crazier. She’s falling down deep into herself, as if into a well. Paul has her by the tails of the pajamas she wears all the time, holding her back from the edge, but he feels his grip slipping.
Margaret can feel it slipping too. She is still sane enough to know she’s going insane and she’s terrified. So she’s convinced herself that she has developed Tourette Syndrome. Tourette is a disease, she’s reasoned, it’s an organic malfunction that can be controlled with medicine. If she has Tourette she’s not crazy, she’s just sick, and she’ll get better.
She spends a lot of her time mimicking what she thinks are the symptoms of Tourette. She’s not fooling anyone. But Paul does his best to make her believe he believes her.
Speaking of Northern Exposure, The Big White is also set in Alaska. But Northern Exposure’s Cecily was a part of Alaska. It had fitted itself into the landscape and assimilated and been assimilated by the Native American culture that was there ahead of it. In order to live there happily and feel at home in the place, all you had to do was get along with your neighbors and adapt to the rhythms of the place. You learned to love the weather. That was Fleischman’s problem. He refused to get along or adapt.
But the unnamed town that’s the setting for The Big White is a transplanted piece of Anywhere, America, an assemblage of strip malls and ranch house developments dropped on the tundra. The residents can’t adapt to living in Alaska because to go about their daily business requires them to live as if they’re in a suburb of Sacramento, Toledo, or Wilmington, Delaware.
Even in the coldest and snowiest of winters they’re forced to spend lots of time alone in their cars driving from isolated homes to isolated businesses. It’s a place that seems to have been designed to cause Seasonal Affective Disorder. The ads for Waikiki Airplanes and posters for Hawaiian vacations in Paul’s office emphasize the emptiness of the place and the futility of his business. The scenes of surfers and smiling, beautiful couples walking hand in hand on beaches don’t inspire a longing to get away. They only remind you of the cold and the snow outside and encourage a surrender to the bleakness. They don’t make you want to rush to the airport. They send you home to hide or to a bar to drink.
In such a place you wonder how it is that everyone hasn’t gone as crazy as Margaret. Then it dawns on you. They have.
Paul is convinced, naturally, that if he can just get Margaret out of here and take her someplace warm she’ll recover and return to her old self.
In order to leave and set up somewhere else, though, he needs to settle his debts.
He has only one asset, his brother’s million dollar life insurance policy that names Paul as beneficiary.
The good news is that Raymond Barnell has been missing for years, and, a wild guy, a heavy drinker, with a bad temper and a self-destructive streak, it’s a good bet he’s dead.
The bad news is that state law requires that a person be missing for seven years before they can be declared legally dead. Raymond has been gone only five. Paul has to wait two more years before he can collect on Raymond’s policy, unless, of course, Raymond’s dead body turns up.
Which it does.
Well, a dead body does.
A pair of legbreakers who, against their better nature, have upscaled their business to include murder for hire have done a guy for another, meaner thug named Dave—
First legbreaker (as they’re dumping the body): What’d he do anyway?
Second legbreaker: Don’t know. But Dave said if he did it again he’d break his neck.
It being winter and the ground being frozen and under a foot of snow, they can’t bury the body, and their being inexperienced in these matters and apparently never having watched The Sopranos, Gary and Jimbo aren’t sure how to dispose of the body. So they decide to leave it for the professionals. They drop it off in a dumpster.
Where Paul finds it.
Now all he’s got to do is pass the body off as his brother’s while deflecting the suspicions of the insurance investigator. The first part turns out to be easy. The insurance investigator is more of a problem.
Ted Watters (Ribisi) isn't just a crackerjack investigator, he's a desperate one. In his way, he's as desperate as Paul. Sent up to Alaska by his company's home office to whip the department into shape and train a promising rookie, Ted has begun to suspect that what was supposed to be the prelude to a promotion was actually a punishment for an unwitting mistake the company's never bothered to explain to him. He's been up here for thirteen months and is feeling permanently banished. When Paul shows up, attempting what Ted sees as obvious insurance fraud, he decides he can get himself back into corporate's good graces by exposing Paul and saving the company a million bucks.
He's astonished when the company execs accept Paul's story and decide to pay off. And he's frustrated when after he presses the case they tell him to forget about it. He determines to do the right thing and get the goods on Paul. This turns out to be a perverse and self-destructive move on his part and bizarrely makes him a villain in everyone else's eyes. He is shocked that doing his job, doing the honest thing, leads to his being not just disliked but physically punished by Fate. This is so obviously unfair that it just makes him more determined to bring Paul down.
Meanwhile, the thug who hired Gary and Jimbo doesn’t believe they’ve done their job. He demands visual proof. He wants to see the body. When they return to the dumpster to fetch it—apparently they’ve checked the pick-up schedule and expect it to still be where they left it—and find out it’s gone, it doesn’t take them long to figure out where it went.
They’re naive for hitmen, but they’re not stupid. They guess that the body must have been discovered by someone who uses the dumpster regularly, someone in one of the businesses nearby, learn that Paul has recently buried his “brother” whose body turned up mysteriously, and track him down. They break into his house, take Margaret hostage, and demand Paul return the body.
There is some black comedy in The Big White—I won’t tell you what Paul has to go through to pass the body off as his brother’s—but this is really a very sad and sweet little movie, mainly because of the loving marriage between Paul and Margaret that is at the movie’s heart and Williams’ and Hunter’s performances.
Hunter is adorable...and believably crazy. We get only a single glimpse of Margaret as she used to be. In a home video Paul took on one of their vacations, a waiter spills a drink on her and she reacts with good grace and great good humor. What Hunter does is make us realize that in going crazy Margaret hasn’t changed that much. She is the same person we see in the video, the same person Paul fell in love with 15 years ago, only more so. It’s a terrifying and terribly sad definition of madness as an intensification of personality. Going mad means becoming more like yourself.
To a lesser degree, but still to a degree of madness, this is what has happened to both Paul and Ted too. Each man has become more like himself. And the more you are lost in yourself the less room you have for other people. Paul will always have room for Margaret, but Ted is squeezing the woman he loves out of his life, and he definitely doesn't have any room for Paul and his troubles except as means to solving his own problem.
Williams does a very nice job of using that puppy dog quality of his that can be so annoying in his Patch Adams-Love Me Love Me roles to real effect beyond playing for the camera's affections. He turns it exclusively on Margaret, making it into a blanket of niceness that he attempts to keep wrapped around her to protect her from her own fear. This frees him up to be less than nice with the other characters. Williams allows Paul to be angry. Paul isn't a martyr. He isn't resigned to what's happening to him and Margaret. It's unfair and it's awful and it makes him furious, and he can barely keep his anger in check. The unfairness of it has also made him willing to be unfair, to return meanness with meanness, and to do whatever he has to do to save Margaret, up to the point of being willing to commit murder.
As Ted, Ribisi does something you don't see young American actors do very often. He plays a thirty year old as a full-fledged adult.
Ted likes his job, he's good at it, he works hard at what he does and he defines himself by himself by his work, and he carries himself accordingly. Overgrown college boys do not hold positions of trust and responsibility like the one Ted has earned. Ted is a man doing a man's job. He's sober, serious, responsible, disciplined, decent, honest, and nuts.
Ribisi makes no special pleas for his honest and decent character's honesty and decency or for any of his other virtues. Ted may be in the right, but he's doing the right thing for suspect reasons, reasons that border on mania if not outright madness, and Ribisi fixes his eyes in an unblinking beady-eyed stare that repels sympathy. He trusts enough in the character's basic attractiveness and in his own likability as a young leading man to play up Ted's unattractive side.
He also trusts in Alison Lohman as Ted's devoted girlfriend, Tiffany. Tiffany is a lovable character---the most lovable in the movie---and it helps that Lohman is as lovable as Tiffany's supposed to be. But Ribisi doesn't simply trust that we'll like Ted for Tiffany's sake. He understands that if Ted is to be liked he must learn to be likable, and he has only one person to learn it from, Tiffany.
Getting back to Northern Exposure, Ted is the character with Joel Fleischman's problem. Like Joel, he knows he would be happier if he would just relax and learn to get along with his new neighbors. But also like Flieschman, he knows that getting along and learning to like living where he's stuck living is a form of surrender. He doesn't want to like it there. He wants out of there, now.
So he resists anything and everything that might make him like it there. This includes Tiffany.
Tiffany loves him, but Ted refuses to love her back---or to admit that he does.
The more fool him.
Tiffany runs a psychic hotline out of the house she and Ted share. She is a good-natured fraud, untroubled in her conscience by what Ted calls her "carny scam," because she believes her callers understand that she's a fake. She and they pretend together that she's a psychic so they don't have to admit to themselves that they ought to be smart enough to solve the problems they bring to her on their own.
The real point is, though, that their problems are problems and she does help solve them. What Tiffany is is a talented psychologist and practical nurse who didn't have the money or luck to go to college and earn an actual degree in the field she was born for.
Ted is blind to her talent, or pretends to be, and even more willfully blind to the fact that her most challenging client, the person who most needs her help and advice, is himself.
Lohman, who I was afraid would disappear into Hollywood movie starlet-dom after her wonderful turn as the young Jessica Lange to Ewan McGregor's young Albert Finney in Big Fish, plays Tiffany without any trace of a starlet's vanity. Tiffany is pretty because Lohman is pretty, but the fact doesn't seem to interest either one of them. Tiffany is smart too, but that doesn't matter all that much to her either. And she's good-hearted, another fact about herself Tiffany doesn't overvalue. She doesn't believe that her good-heartedness has earned her any special favors from life. This is the big difference between her and Ted and between her and Paul. She doesn't feel owed.
Learning not to feel owed is the first lesson Ted needs to learn from her.
I hope I'm getting at what Ribisi and Lohman manage to do so well by saying that watching Ted's slow realization and conversion is like watching Lohman teach Ribisi how to dance. She's an excellent and enthusiastic teacher, but patient and slow, and he's trusting enough and modest enough to let her lead.
It's to director Mark Mylod's and screenwriter Collin Friesen's great credit, as well as to Ribisi's, that they leave Ted still in the process of learning when the movie ends. Ted has only progressed so far that he's no longer stepping on her toes. He's got a ways to go before he can take over on the dance floor.
The movie doesn't end with Ted and Tiffany exactly duplicating the loving married couple, Margaret and Paul. Ted hasn't completely given in. But his last line makes clear that he'll get there.
Tiffany (taking Ted's arm as the snow falls on them): Don't you just love this weather.
Ted (looking at the sky warily but hopefully): Learning to.
Woody Harrelson makes a vivid and terrifying appearance bringing the kind of violence and menace that is usually kept just out of range in these Northern Exposure-influenced movies and shows. His character is another one who has gone nuts by becoming too much like himself. Unfortunately, in his case it means becoming more of a monster of selfishness and anger.
I think Mylod let him overdo it a bit, but Harrelson gets his final scene just right nonetheless, and it's a powerful and moving moment that leads to another sad and perfect little grace note by Williams.
Tim Blake Nelson and W. Earl Brown as the erstwhile hitmen, Gary and Jimbo, are a lot of fun, especially when Gary attempts to make Margaret admit she's faking her Tourette symptoms because he likes her and is concerned about her. Margaret calls Gary and Jimbo the Gay Mafia, but it's never clear that the characters are lovers. They are, however, married, in their fashion. They are a devoted couple and the small, quiet ways Brown and Nelson show the men's domestic familiarity and their affection are both funny and touching.
The Big White. Directed by Mark Mylod. Written by Collin Friesen. Starring Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, Giovanni Ribisi, Alison Lohman, Woody Harrelson, Tim Blake Nelson, and W. Earl Brown. Echo Bridge Entertainment in association with Capitol Films. 2005.
The Big White is available to watch instantly at Amazon.
My favorite Williams movie, The Fisher King, which is also my favorite Jeff Bridges movie, is streaming on Netflix.
The first shot of Mark Ruffalo in Begin Again is one of the most frightening images of a movie star I’ve ever seen. It’s horrifying and repulsive but irresistible and riveting in the way human wreckage often is.
We’re in a bar. New York City. Somewhere in the Village. Ruffalo---his character, whoever he is---is obviously drunk. And this isn’t that kind of bar. The clientele aren’t here to drink. They’re here to listen. And talk. It’s an open-mic night. We know how those go. But it isn’t just that he’s drunk that marks him as out of place. He’s alone, for one thing. He’s middle-aged for another. Most of the crowd that we can see are in their twenties. He’s a worn-down, beaten-down fortysomething. And he’s a mess. Uncombed, unshaven, probably unwashed. Rumpled head to toe to a degree that says he’s not just had a hard night but a hard year. Or two. Or three. Actually, we find out later, seven. But what really let’s us know he’s an outsider here is that he’s listening to the music.
Like I said, we know how open-mic nights go. The singer songwriter alone on stage with her guitar is struggling to hold the lackadaisically friendly crowd’s drifting attention and losing the struggle. Her problem is she can’t belt it out over the noise of a dozen conversations. She doesn’t have the confidence, in her voice, in her playing, in her song, which she wrote, in herself. We know this about her because we’ve already met her. She doesn’t want to be up there. She had to be practically pushed up onto the stage. But this guy is all attention.
He stands there, his bleary eyes wide-open and as round as pie plates, his scruffy cheeks stretched by a grin of maniacal idiocy.
If she could see him past the spotlights she’d be terrified.
If we didn’t know and thought this was a different kind of movie we’d be worried for her.
But then the story jumps back in time to that morning and we begin to follow him through his awful and increasingly self-destructive day---since he’s been on a downward slide for a while he doesn’t have much of a self left to destruct, what we’re watching is him at the his rope with his grip beginning to slip---and we see him throw away what’s left of his career, further alienate his already alienated teenage daughter, show us why his marriage failed, and wander aimlessly at last into this bar, bringing us right back to where we met him, presenting us with the same image as we began with, only now we know what’s causing that awful grin.
It’s not mania.
It’s not idiocy, it’s bliss.
And now that we know what’s behind it, it’s not awful anymore.
I’ll have to go back and rewatch when it comes out on DVD to see if Ruffalo and director John Carney are playing games here and they shot the scene over making subtle changes or if they’re being clever in another way, knowing that context is everything and our now knowing that context or thinking we know it will change our perceptions. Either way, it’s a neat trick.
The guy is listening. Intently. Sympathetically. Appreciatively. But not just to what’s on stage. He’s also hearing what could be up there. And we get to listen with him. And we know what he knows. She’s good. She could be a lot better. She will be a lot better, if he has anything to do with it, because we know something else now too, he’s good at what he does too. Well, was good. But he will be good again. He’s grinning like he is because he knows that. He hears it. He’s listening to the sound of his redemption.
Hers too, as it turns out.
I’m going to stop here for some liner notes on spoiler alerts.
I try very hard not to give too much away in movie reviews. Some things I just don’t mention or at least I don’t go into detail mentioning. Surprise twists, endings, important characters’ ultimate fates, visual and technical effects that are better seen than read about. But some things can’t be written about without giving away plot points and those things are often what’s good (or bad) about a movie and the reason I liked it (or didn’t) and think you would (like it or not like it) too. And that’s the case with Begin Again. I haven’t been able to think of how talk about everything that’s good about it (and there’s a lot) without giving things away. This is especially true of Kiera Knightley’s character and her performance, which are the heart of the movie.
So you might want to stop reading here because, you know, spoilers.
Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan---golfers will get the joke in his last name---a record producer, once one of the most successful indie producers in the business. He had a gift for discovering and nurturing new talent. He heard things others missed. But it’s been a long time since he’s had a success. Probably because he’s been listening with only half an inner ear for years, as he’s been paying more attention to the noises made by his self-pity. His now ex-wife broke his heart and he let that break his spirit. But without warning, he’s finally heard something promising again. Knightley.
Knightley plays Gretta, the diffident and reluctant singer songwriter, and after Ruffalo introduces himself and makes his pitch to take her under his wing and guide her to stardom, the story jumps back in time again, and we follow her path to this bar, which began several months before, mostly happy months for her, well, apparently happy, although today’s been a very bad day, and we learn how she got here.
She was dragged by her best friend, another singer songwriter, who hoped it would distract her from her grief over her break-up with her boyfriend, yet another singer-songwriter, although a much more successful one. In fact, he’s just had his big break and is on his way to a level of stardom even higher than the one Mulligan’s promising Gretta.
This is the sob story we might expect we’re being set up for. There’s an note of self-destructiveness in Gretta too.
She wasn’t being overshadowed by her boyfriend’s talent. She was hiding her own behind it. And we see that she was in the process of using his success as an excuse to erase all trace of herself as a musician, an artist, and even a person in her own right.
Reluctantly, doubtfully, but with a burst of determination brought on by anger that surprises her, and after Googling him to make sure he’s not just the drunken, maniacal idiot he appears to be, Gretta accepts Dan’s offer and he gets right to work the next day.
He takes her to see his former partner Saul (played with a soft-spoken wariness by Mos Def, again appearing under his real Yasiin Bey). That doesn’t work out. Saul can’t hear what Dan hears and he no longer trusts Dan’s ear.
Without money to rent a studio, Dan gets the idea to record Gretta wherever they can find a space to set up. On the street if they have to. The idea carries them away. They’ll do it on the street, in an alley, on a rooftop, on a subway platform, in the rowboats on the lake in Central Park, under the arch in Washington Square Park. They’ll record her live and work into the final mix whatever background noise the mics pick up. The voices of the city will sing harmony. The music of its streets, parks, and subways will provide backup. The album will be a musical portrait of New York!
It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work!
Of course it does work. We know it will work. We’re told flat out it’s going to work when Gretta mentions a Judy Garland movie. Not Wizard of Oz and not A Star Is Born. One of her “Let’s Put on a Show!” movies of the kind she routinely did with Mickey Rooney. Begin Again is that kind of movie.
With a happy ending practically guaranteed, the suspense is in how that happy ending will come about and in discovering exactly what happy will mean for Gretta and Dan.
Director John Carney, who also wrote the script, uses what we know based on the conventions of romantic comedies is going to happen to set up expectations in order to surprise us by not meeting those expectations or meeting them in eccentric and roundabout ways.
Example: Convention sets up to expect that Gretta’s the real talent and her ex-boyfriend, Dave Kohl, a flash in the pan, a one-hit wonder, if not a downright phony. She is talented. But he’s a star. Not just a major talent, either. An artist. One who knows how to incorporate his audience and their expectations into his performances. He doesn’t manipulate them or play up to them (or down to them). He works with them. His art, his music, is collaborative in more than the usual way. Gretta doesn’t learn she’s as good as him, never mind better. She simply learns she’s an artist in her own way and that she has responsibilities to herself because of that, which, by the way, doesn’t exempt her from responsibilities to her other people.
One of those people is Kohl. Another is Dan.
This is how it goes throughout. We know what’s going to happen and then it turns out we didn’t know or didn’t quite know it. Characters get some of what they want, more of what they need, it just turns out, as the writer George V. Higgins said about how happy endings turn often turn out in life, it just doesn’t look like what they expected. Or what we expected for them.
We know Gretta and Dan will get their album made. We know it’ll be a success. We know Gretta will blossom as an artist. We know Dan will sober up and get his act together. We know Dan and his daughter Violet will work things out and we know know Gretta will be the agent (angel) of their reconciliation. We know Dan and Gretta’s partnership will turn into friendship which will turn into…
…a conflict with something else we know, which is that Dan and his ex-wife Miriam will start making moves towards getting back together.
Dan and Gretta and Dan and Miriam both can’t end happily!
We know we’re supposed to root for Gretta but we can’t help rooting for Miriam too, especially since she’s played by Catherine Keener whose career practically exists for directors who need someone immediately sympathetic and whom we root for even she’s in the wrong, as Miriam is and isn’t here.
This conflict of rooting interests makes us lose track of what we really should be rooting for. That’s a good thing, in case I’m not being clear.
This is the first time I’ve seen Knightley play an ordinary human being coping with ordinary problems. She’s in love, but it’s not a grand romance. She’s torn between two men, but her dilemma’s not even potentially tragic. And there are no pirates.
By ordinary I mean a type we could run into any and every day, have run into many times, in my case, a not all that rare breed of young artiste with talent and intelligence and without ego and vanity whose only ambition is to be able to do what she does well the way she wants to do it. Gretta is not a star in the making or in her own head. Which isn’t to say she’s fine with the way she is. Her problem is she’s too accepting of what she’s let herself become, which is a little too ordinary. Knightley conveys this with the way she slouches inside her dowdy outfits of shapeless gingham dresses and baggy tops worn over torn jeans with flat-soled sandals and slip-ons. This is someone who hit on a style in college and has stuck with it because it’s easy and because it accomplishes what she needs it to, make her not quite invisible but easy to overlook.
But there’s something about the angularity of her carriage---she’s all elbows and knees---and the set of her face that tells us that what we know from movie conventions, that she’ll clean up nice, won’t have the effect those conventions might be leading us to expect. Dress her up, pin her hair back, hand her a lipstick and she’ll turn out to be…not Keira Knightley. She’ll still be Gretta, an ordinarily attractive young woman who’s learned a few style tips that don’t really matter to her.
What matters to her is her songwriting and her music. To convey that, Knightley had to learn how to sing and play the guitar. I can’t tell you if how well she learned to play. Her fingers look to be doing the right things but who knows how things got fixed up in the sound studio. Same with her singing, but it sounds to me as if the sound engineers left her voice sounding as close to natural as they could, and that leaves her sounding like what she is, someone who can sing well enough to please a crowd in a club or in a small hall and even sell albums but who’s really singing to the stars who she hopes will cover her songs to give them an idea of how they should sing them.
Knightley’s best talent as an actress is her knowing how to employ that great, wonderful, screen-eating smile of hers. In Anna Karenina part of the horror was in watching that smile grow brittle and then desperate and then fade. In Begin Again, it doesn’t exactly do the opposite, it doesn’t need to return because it’s not gone away. But it takes time for it to regain its full force and for Gretta to let go and stop shutting it down whenever she feels it beaming on too long.
But there’s a whole lot more happening on her face besides the smile. Gretta, secure in her belief that she’s almost never the focus of anyone’s attention, feels free to let every thing she feels and thinks show.
Here’s one of those spoilers. In a scene late in the movie, Gretta goes to see Dave perform in concert for the first time since their break up and his rise to stardom. He wants her to take him back, as we knew from the first he would, and she’s exacted a promise from him, as a test of whether or not he deserves it, to perform one of the songs they wrote together her preferred way despite his fans’ love of his arrangement. And at first he seems to be passing the test. All at once, though, he gives in to the wishes of the crowd who want to sing and dance along to the song as they know it.
And the succession of expressions that cross her face---melting adoration, at first, then shock as he switches from doing the song her way to his, then hurt, then anger, then sardonic amusement, then realization, then acceptance, then understanding, appreciation, and a new but unromantic affection---is a delight.
My favorite of these expressive moments, though, occurs when she and Dan are on the subway listening to the songs on his playlist on his smart phone. All at once she surprises him and herself by shimmying her shoulders to the music. It’s sexy and Knightley shows us that Gretta knows it’s sexy and is enjoying feeling sexy but then can’t continue to enjoy it because she’s enjoying something else, laughing at herself over it all. And there’s that smile.
Ruffalo plays Dan as somewhat the opposite of the wayward brother he played in You Can Count on Me. In that movie his character was someone you knew you couldn’t count on who managed to charm you into counting on him anyway. In Begin Again, Dan is someone you feel you ought to be able to count on but is determined to prove you’d be wrong to do it.
In You Can Count On Me, he had to be charming enough that we understood why people counted on him despite themselves. In Begin Again, he has to be charming enough that we can see why the very few people who still count on him aren’t out of their minds but not so charming we forget why everybody else thinks they know better.
Ruffolo makes Dan a battered, ragged, popped-seamed, stuffing-leaking, buttons-missing teddy bear of a man, the kind of teddy bear who appears not worth repairing but you keep around for sentimentality’s sake. Dan puts himself back together stitch by stitch but the fun of it is that we don’t actually see the mending. Ruffalo just has Dan looking and acting a little bit better each time he reappears. With each new scene we think “Something’s different” and then Ruffalo makes us have to look for what that is.
As Dan’s half-heartedly rebellious teenage daughter, Violet, Hailee Steinfeld, who earned an Academy Award nomination playing Mattie Ross in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, shows she wasn’t herself a one-hit wonder. She’s clearly working on growing as an actress and like Gretta doesn’t seem to be concerned with stardom but with being good at what she does and continuing to do it. Her character is more than conventional, it’s a cliche, but her performance is marked by interesting and intelligent touches that mark Violet as herself and Steinfeld as what she’s said she wants to be in the future, a writer and director.
As Miriam, Dan’s exasperated ex-wife and Violet’s worried mother, Keener does what she does best, evince the world-weary resignedness of an intelligent, resourceful, and once happier woman who has some of the stuffing knocked out of by life but has mostly gotten over it and long since decided she’s not going to choose between hope and despair and just deal with things as they come.
Rap star CeLo Green plays a big-hearted angel of a rap star named Troublegum, one of Dan’s discoveries from way back when who has not forgotten all he owes him and to whom it doesn’t matter whether or not Dan can be counted on anymore. He simply loves Dan for the good he did him and believes that when you love someone you are always looking out for them. Rob Morrow shows up for a brief but wicked cameo as a music company executive in yellow-tinted glasses whose seductive smile and jovial declarations of love for anyone who amuses him (and promises to make him money) lets us know he’s the devil. Bey---Mos Def---plays another kind of devil, an underminer and a planter and exploiter of doubt.
As Dave Kohl, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine acts at least as well as he sings, convincing off the stage as on playing a basically decent guy who’s being a jerk and is tempted to become an even bigger jerk but who isn’t at heart a jerk and doesn’t want to be one. And as Gretta’s best friend Steve, a fellow singer and songwriter, James Corden is cast as the type of open-hearted, eager to please nice guy convention lets us know has a secret sorrow and is destined for heartbreak he’ll suffer with puppy dog eyes and a mournful smile of acceptance that he then doesn’t play. Doesn’t have to play. Steve is a happy guy having fun being what he is a young artist in New York lucky enough to be able to do what he likes to do and that makes Corden’s scenes some of the most fun scenes in the movie.
Final verse. Along with everything else, Begin Again is what Gretta’s album is meant to be, a loving portrait of New York City set to music. And while I can say that the portrait of New York is recognizable and loveable, I don’t have Dan’s ear and can’t tell you if the music is truly good. What I can tell you is that I liked it and all the songs Gretta is supposed to have written sound like they could have been written by her. And that’s probably as important because, when the show’s over and the band’s packed up and left the stage, Begin Again is Gretta’s story, the story of a music industry Cinderella who becomes her own fairy godmother and fairy godmother to others, and it’s her music that gives her the strength and the ability to do it.
Begin Again, written and directed by John Carney. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, James Corden, Yasiin Bey, CeLo Green, and Rob Morrow. Rated R. Now in theaters.
Spoiler by way of an encore: The spoiling here isn’t just in the scenes from the movie, the song lyrics are giveaways too, so watch at your own discretion.
It’s one of the Joker’s goals in life---and, as it turns out, depending on what timeline we’re in, in death---to make Batman laugh.
Making Batman laugh means making him lose self-control and that’s something the Joker is dying---and, again, depending on the timeline, literally dying---to see, probably because he thinks that if Batman is no longer in control of himself, that means the Joker is, and probably because he thinks that losing control would embarrass Batman and make him feel foolish and weak, and probably just for the fun of it. He thinks it would be funny to see Batman laugh.
It doesn’t occur to him to him that humor has to have a context and that under some circumstances some things just aren’t funny and that he’s always creating such circumstances.
Mainly, though, I think he simply wants out of Batman what all clowns want from their audiences. Approval. Laughter is the expression of that approval. And I think he understands that by laughing Batman would become, if only momentarily, complicit in the Joker’s evil.
What he doesn’t understand is that Batman’s self-control may be just that, self-control.
As in operating the controls or controlling a pen or a brush or controlling a meeting or controlling traffic or controlling a situation. As in steering, guiding, shaping, creating, and consciously taking things in a thoughtful and mindful way to a planned destination, conclusion, or effect.
As far as the Joker understands it, there’s not really such a thing as self-control. There’s only repression. People are what they are, a turmoil of selfish desires, impulses, urges, appetites, obsessions, and compulsions that they keep in check by pretending to be whatever personality they’ve adopted as a container and a disguise.
So, he assumes, Batman’s grim, dark, brooding affect is just that, an affectation and as much a mask of his true self as his actual mask.
The real Batman is what the Joker assumes everyone is, a version of himself.
And he’s right---about Batman’s wearing a mask. He’s wrong about the reason for the mask and how it was constructed, but he’s right about that.
The grim, brooding, humorless Dark Knight is not Batman’s true self.
Or not the only true side of himself.
This is something the Joker knows that many of Batman’s fans don’t or have forgotten. There are other sides of Batman. New York Magazine’s Abraham Riesman attributes this to the over-influence of Frank Miller on the comic books and, especially, on the movies, an influence he would like to see given a rest, which he’s pretty sure isn’t going to be the case with Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The upcoming re-reboot of Batman, in Zack Snyder's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, will be hugely influenced by [Miller’s] The Dark Knight Returns. The first photos of Ben Affleck show a costume that's a near-direct copy of the one seen in that story. So does the Batmobile. Hell, when DC announced the movie a year ago, it did so by having an actor read a monologue from The Dark Knight Returns onstage at the San Diego Comic-Con. It's ridiculous and embarrassing for DC to act like this kind of inspiration breaks new ground.
For those of you with actual grown-up lives and who aren’t in the habit of geeking out over this sort of thing like us aging fanboys and fangirls, Frank Miller is the artist and writer whose graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One are often credited with reviving the Batman franchise, turning around the declining of fortunes of DC in the process by capturing some of Marvel’s audience, and giving comic books---graphic novels---a more adult and realistic sensibility and with it a creative respectability they’d never enjoyed before.
That probably overstates the case but to a lot of people Miller is the one who made Batman real.
Miller re-imagined Batman for a more grown-up, less naive audience by giving what he thought was a realistic answer to the question, What kind of nut would dress up like a bat and devote his life to ambushing and beating up criminals in the dark?
And his answer was, A repressed, ill-tempered, obsessed, anti-social, and self-absorbed emotionally arrested outcast and misfit with anger management issues.
A characterization that was supposed to simultaneously distance us and draw us in by making him sympathetic, somewhat tragic, and, actually, admirable because of those character flaws. His flaws were also his virtues. He was the epitome of hero as neurotic.
Miller didn’t invent that sort of hero---that’s also Hamlet, half the knights of the Round Table, the anti-heroes of film noir and many Westerns, and James Bond. (About the last guy, I’m not sure any of the makers of the movies up until Daniel Craig’s understood that, although I think Ian Fleming did.) And Miller didn’t recast Batman as a grim and brooding neurotic all on his own. The grimness and the brooding were already there, having been an acknowledged part of his origin story and coming back to the fore in the 70s as DC tried to respond to Marvel and comic books generally began to reflect the Zeitgeist as portrayed in the movies of the time.
Anybody written their doctoral thesis on the influence of the Dirty Harry and Death Wish movies on Batman and/or vice versa?
But Miller handled it with such intensity and to such an effect that no one writing or drawing the comics after him could ignore or could dare to ignore what he’d accomplished.
Still, it’s a quality that has waxed and waned over the generation since. If there’s a generally popular image of Batman as a grim, dark, brooding, and violent obsessive, it’s more the work of the movies that were influenced by Miller’s Dark Knight, Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns and Christopher Nolan’s trilogy.
That’s all it is, though, the currently popular image based on a couple of movies more than twenty years old that haven’t aged well and a too long drawn out series of cinematic eccentricities that are already beginning to diminish in audiences’ estimations due to the success after success of the movies in Marvel’s Avengers series. The heroes of those movies, by the way, are all knotted up inside by neuroses, various guilts and regrets, personal issues, hang-ups, and obsessions but they all deal.
None of it prevents any of them from having fun or being, at least occasionally, happy. That includes Bruce Banner.
The image of Batman as a dark, grim, brooding, and violent vigilante has also been reinforced by that persona’s being the hero of the Arkham Asylum video games, which, in addition, have continued another, complementary trope of his particular story, which is also not necessary to the overall mythology: Gotham City as dystopian nightmare.
I’m still looking forward to Gotham, though.
Something else: In his work since The Dark Knight Returns, Miller has revealed that his Batman is something of a self-portrait, an incomplete one, and I don’t mean that he left out the more pleasant and sane facets of his well-adjusted personality.
In subsequent works for DC and Marvel and in public statements, Miller has unmasked himself as not just dark, grim, anti-social, and obsessed, but also racist, misogynistic, and fascistic. He’s not merely neurotic. He’s a borderline hysteric.
In short, Miller’s conception of Batman isn’t only not necessarily canonical. It’s probably something that’s a good idea to downplay if not steer clear of entirely.
Back to Riesman’s objections.
He’s not as down on Miller as I am. He’s a still big admirer of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. He simply thinks the conceit of Batman as a dark knight has played itself out and would like to see movie-makers try something different:
There's nothing inherently wrong with Miller's twin Batman epics. But there is something creatively bankrupt about studios focusing on them so monomaniacally. As Miller himself once said, "There are 50 different ways to do Batman and they all work." Our fate is sealed for Batman v. Superman, but we have to imagine a better future. If an ambitious filmmaker wants to make a truly innovative Batman movie, he or she needs to put Frank's hard-boiled sagas back on the shelf. Luckily, there are more than enough other Bat-tales to devour.
He goes on to give a brief but detailed history of the Batman as he’s changed, grown, diminished, darkened, lightened, and gone off the creative rails over the decades. It’s good. You should read the whole post. (Later. When you’re done with mine, of course.) But his main point is that there’s a seventy-five year tradition to draw from with many versions of the Caped Crusader and he would like to see filmmakers take inspiration from some of them.
So would Oliver Mannion.
Oliver would like to see what he calls “sexy, globetrotting Batman” and when he heard Ben Affleck had been cast as Batman he was momentarily hopeful that’s what we were about to get in Batman v. Superman. Then he remembered who’s making the movie and what Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer had done to Superman in Man of Steel and he put his hopes aside.
I don’t have hopes either, but know what I’d like to see? I’d like to see a swashbuckling Batman. A Batman more like his hero, Zorro.
It’s long been an important part of Batman’s story that his crimefighting persona---both hero and alter-ego---is based on Zorro (Who, in turn, was rip-off of The Scarlet Pimpernel.)---foppish, selfish, and cowardly or at least not inclined to stick his neck out aristocratic playboy by day (and by evening, if there was a good party to attend or he had a date) and daring adventurer by night.
The creators acknowledged it
from the start very early on. The movie the Waynes were coming out of when they were jumped by the mugger who shot and killed ten year old Bruce’s parents was The Mark of Zorro starring Douglas Fairbanks The Mark of Zorro starring Tyrone Power. (Editor’s note: See Gary Farber’s comment.)
And the fact about Zorro is he was a swashbuckler and there’s no such beast as a grim and humorless swashbuckler. Zorro was cheerful. Happy, even. He had fun being Zorro.
He had fun being Don Diego.
Which leads to another fact. Zorro was a disguise and so was Don Diego. Diego de la Vega had divided his personality and exaggerated both sides of it so that neither Zorro nor Don Diego was the real him but neither were either not the real him, if you follow what I’m saying perhaps too cleverly and cutely for my own good.
This used to be true of Batman and Bruce Wayne. The millionaire playboy was a disguise so that no one would suspect Bruce Wayne was the Caped Crusader, but the Caped Crusader was a disguise so that no one would suspect Batman was the millionaire playboy.
The other point of the Batman disguise, the corny but better known point, was to be scary. The grim, brooding, wrathful personality was as much a part of the effect of as the cape and the ears.
There’s nothing inherent in the story or necessary to it that Batman is the real Bruce Wayne or that there’s nothing of the millionaire playboy in the Dark Knight.
And the millionaire playboy side of Bruce Wayne would have fun being Batman. He would have fun with being Batman. Just as he would have fun playing a millionaire playboy and playing as a millionaire playboy.
Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s Batmen were grim, sullen figures, but so were their Bruce Waynes. Neither Michael Keaton nor Christian Bale looked like they were having any fun in their millionaire playboy scenes. Neither ever showed he was in on his own joke. On Zorro’s joke.
It seems odd that Batman would have modeled himself on Don Diego and Zorro in most every way and then forget to smile at least once in a while.
Add this. Besides being the World’s Greatest Detective, Bruce Wayne is one of the World’s Greatest Actors. As Batman, he routinely operates in disguise, a way he is like another of his fictional forebears, Sherlock Holmes. When he does, it’s a case of a disguise wearing a disguise. Things can get rather meta if you take that a little farther. I don’t know if it’s been done---probably it has, at least once in the last seventy-five years---but in a plot that had Batman disguised as a criminal disguising himself as Bruce Wayne, it would be hard to imagine the millionaire playboy not getting a real kick out of it. He would need need a sense of humor and a sense of fun to pull it off. It would also be true to life (as true to life as comic character can get, and don’t forget, the grim, brooding Dark Knight was meant to be a more true to life take), if he found relief in these other disguises.
Interestingly, The LEGO Movie (in which, by the way, everything is awesome!) puts the Frank Miller by way of Christopher Nolan dark knight image of Batman to bed by sending it up wonderfully.
“Anybody have any black bricks? I only work in black and sometimes very dark gray.”
The great thing is that dark as he is, LEGO Batman, still has fun being Batman. He writes his own theme music, relishes the adoration of his girlfriend---he has a girlfriend and she doesn’t die!---enjoys his triumphs over the bad guys, and is always up for a party. And he’s continuously, contentedly, almost cheerfully impressed with himself.
The grim, dark, brooding non-LEGO Batman isn’t self-impressed. He’s self-absorbed and self-obsessed. Which you’d expect of someone who’s devoted his adult life to undoing his childhood. But he’s too guilt-ridden and pessimistic about human nature to allow himself that kind of vanity or even to take personal satisfaction in doing his job well.
LEGO Batman can’t get enough of his own awesomeness.
He also has a high time being LEGO Bruce Wayne, a sexy, swinging, coffee-swigging millionaire playboy. But it’s not so much the millionaire playboy part he gets a kick out of in the movie. It’s being the billionaire head of a multi-national corporation who is what he is because he’s the smartest, most creative, most intellectually daring minfigure ever to come out of a kit. He outwits the genius criminal mastermind by impressing him with his own genius. He gives the criminal mastermind ideas that the mastermind gets carried away with following up on, in effect turning the villain’s own brilliance against him.
Which demonstrates, that in addition to being a brilliant engineer and business executive, he’s a master at psychological manipulation.
Ok. It’s The LEGO Movie. This is all pretty goofy. But it’s funny and fun and it highlights something about Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy.
Batman is manipulated by the villains every step of the way in all three movies.
And he’s not very bright.
At any rate, we rarely see him being smart and Batman---Bruce Wayne---is a genius.
To be fair, it’s hard to portray intelligence let alone genius. Even Shakespeare created only two truly intelligent characters, characters with superior intellects we see at work thinking, Hamlet and Rosalind. His other “smart” characters---Iago, Richard III, Cassius---get away with seeming it because everybody around them is kind of dim. The movies and comic books have usually treated Batman’s genius as a given with the proof being his gadgets (Remember, Bruce Wayne designs all his toys, Lucius Fox puts them together.) and the fact that he wins in the end, defeating criminal masterminds who are smart in the way Iago and Richard and Cassius are smart.
So it’s not that Batman has to actually be smart as that he should at least talk smart, and I don’t mean by spouting technobabble.
There’s a problem there for grim, brooding, dark Batman. He doesn’t talk. LEGO Batman can’t shut up.
Adam West’s Batman, goofy as he was---and actually the goofiest thing about him was that he never reacted to the goofiness around him as if it was goofy---talked smart. He knew things. Well, he knew everything. He was a walking bat-encyclopedia. But you get the point.
What I’m getting at, finally, is that there can be more going on with your Batman even if he is on occasion grim, dark, and brooding.
And whatever direction you take him, he can still have fun and be fun.
Nobody’s thinking there’ll be a whole lot of fun in Zack Snyder’s Batman. Well, nobody who isn’t fooling themselves or who doesn’t have a warped idea of fun.
For one thing, never mind the Frank Miller influence---which is considerable for Snyder who directed a too loving adaptation of Miller’s 300---there’s the influence of Christopher Nolan weighing heavy on the project.
The possibility that in becoming Batman Bruce Wayne is exercising self-control isn’t raised in Nolan’s trilogy. It’s pretty much a given that in putting on the batsuit Batman is taking off his disguise to become his real self. He’s not reining in his more tender and lighthearted feelings but simply allowing his true feelings to take over.
Nolan isn’t producing Batman v. Superman (he’s listed as one of several executive producers) so Snyder may feel he has a freer hand. Meanwhile, at stately Wayne Manor, Chris Terrio, who wrote the screenplay for Argo, has a writing credit so there’s somebody involved who has a sense of humor and knows what makes actual human beings tick. And Snyder did lighten up at the end of Man of Steel. Henry Cavill’s Superman turned suddenly cheerful and seemed to be enjoying being Superman, finally. And he was having a ball being Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet, as opposed to Clark Kent, browbeaten, guilt-ridden, self-doubting farm boy son of the emotionally abusive Jonathan Kent.
So we Batman v Superman pessimists and skeptics could be wrong.
But still Snyder and Goyer did give us a thirteen year old Clark so beaten down by Jonathan that he can take hardly any pride in having saved a busload of his schoolmates from drowning and certainly none in having the powers and abilities to be able to save them. He’s guilty, apologetic, and defensive and as he grows up he does his good deeds in secret and with a look of shame. This is a Clark who never had any fun outracing a train or amazing Lana Lang by inexplicably beating her car from school to the turn off to the Kent farm. Being a superhero is a burden or, to use a little of the religious imagery Snyder overused, his cross to bear.
If he can’t give us a cheerful Superman, what’s he going to do with Batman?
Like I said, Man of Steel did lighten up, and it could be that grim as Affleck’s Batman looks in the few photos that have been released, that’s a starting point. Snyder may be following the Smallville route and having Superman be a symbol of hope for everyone including Bruce Wayne. Maybe he’s going to rekindle Batman’s idealism and tame the warrior spirit in Wonder Woman.
Maybe he’ll pull the Justice League together with the force of his smile.
And maybe Batman will laugh.
Now you can go read all of Abraham Riesman’s post, Dear Hollywood: Stop Using Frank Miller’s Batman Stories As Source Material.
Hat tip to Jamelle Bouie, who’d also like to see Frank Miller’s Dark Knight given a vacation:
I'm a little tired of the brooding, dark Batman, both because it's boring and because it misrepresents the long history of the character. Batman has been wacky for as long as he's been brooding, and the best Batman stories emphasize his core humanity.
Meanwhile, same bat-blog, different bat-post: Three Happy Zorros. Scroll down or click on the link.
Just found out about this one last night.
Good to see Tim Robbins back at work and doesn’t he look wonderfully sleazy? And I’m hoping this is another sign Jennifer Aniston has finished with her string of Watch Another Leading Man Fall Madly in Love With Me, Brad Pitt movies and gone back to acting.
Life of Crime’s based on Elmore Leonard’s novel The Switch, which is the prequel to Rum Punch, the Leonard novel Jackie Brown’s based on (Technically, it’s the other way round. The Switch was published first, so Rum Punch is the sequel.), which makes Life of Crime a prequel to Jackie Brown with Mos Def (starring in this one under his real name, Yasiin Bey), John Hawkes, and Isla Fisher are playing the characters Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro, and Bridget Fonda played in Jackie Brown. Director and screenwriter Daniel Schechter has set the bar pretty high for himself, since, along with Get Shorty and Out of Sight, Jackie Brown is one of the only three truly good adaptations of Leonard’s novels. Crime novels. Hombre is a fine adaptation of Hombre and a good Western in its own right, and some people like Valdez is Coming (I’ve never read the book.) Three-Ten to Yuma has been made into two good movies, although, if you want to get particular about it, it’s not a novel but a short(ish) story, the 1957 Glenn Ford-Van Heflin version somewhat better than the Russell Crowe-Christian Bale version. And…movie adaptations. Justified is the best of the best, but then it’s long since transcended its beginnings as an adaptation and even its connection to Leonard to become its own, great thing.
Life of Crime hits the theaters August 29.
And for comparison’s sake…
Mos Def and John Hawkes as Ordell and Louis in Life of Crime.
Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson as Louis and Ordell in Jackie Brown.
Just about every shot in the trailer for Wild perfectly evokes a scene or image from the book it’s based on, Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir of a thousand mile plus hike she took in 1995 when she was twenty-six to cure herself of grief, heartbreak, and various addictions, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. That doesn’t guarantee it’s going to be a good movie. Sometimes movies based on books can be too faithful to their originals. But it’s a reminder of what a terrific book it is.
I walked all day, falling and skidding and trudging along, bracing so hard with my ski pole that my hand blistered. I switched to the other hand and it blistered too. Around every bend and over every ridge and on the other side of every meadow I hoped there would be no more snow. But there was always more snow amid the occasional patches where the ground was visible. Is that the [trail]? I’d wonder when I saw the actual ground. I could never be certain…
I sweated as I hiked, the whole backside of me wet where my pack covered my body, regardless of the temperature or what clothing I wore. When I stopped, I began shivering within minutes, my wet clothes suddenly icy cold. My muscles had at last begun to adjust to the demands of long-distance hiking, but now new demands were placed on them., and not only to brace myself in the constant effort to stay upright. If the ground upon which I was walking was on a slope, I had to chop out each step in order to get my footing, lest I slip down the mountain and crash inot the rocks and the bushes and trees below, or worse, go sailing over the edge. Methodically, I kicked into the snow’s icy crust, making footholds step-by-step…With all the kicking and bracing, my feet blistered in new places as well as in all the old places that had blistered back in my first days of hiking, the flesh on my hips and shoulders rubbed raw by [the straps of my pack].
Now, watch for that scene in the trailer.
The title of the movie was The Magnificent Seven but the cast was really a magnificent eight. Here’s the late, great Eli Wallach as I’ll always and fondly remember him, as the bandit leader Calvera.
One of the more fun things to know about Wallach is he titled his autobiography The Good, the Bad, and Me. I learned that from this post by Sheila O’Malley which is full of everything you need to know Wallach to remind you what a treasure he was.
Well, almost everything.
She left out his stint stepping in for Otto Preminger as Mr Freeze on the old Batman TV show.
Actually, some of Wallach’s best acting was done in guest shots on TV shows. On an episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip he played a enigmatic old coot who might be a famous TV writer blackballed during the McCarthy era. Mostly all he does is sit and tell stories from the early days of television in monologues that sounded like Aaron Sorkin giving notes to himself on what he needed to do to fix his own show, notes, sadly, he didn’t act upon.
My favorite guest starring role was on Naked City in which he played a cop who might be dirty, might in fact be a murder---“might be” could qualify most of Wallach’s performances. You never could be sure with him. When he was playing a bad guy, you didn’t know how much good was lurking inside; when he was playing a good or at least sympathetic guy, you didn’t know how long the good or the sympathy would last. It was that wolfish grin, full of charm, humor, and menace all all together.
That episode was also notable for Wallach’s gunning down a very young Peter Falk before Falk could utter a line.
Vamos, amigos, on over to Sheila’s ranchero, The Sheila Variations, and read the whole post, R.I.P. Eli Wallach.
In the opening sequences of Moscow on the Hudson, flashing back to his life in Russia, Robin Williams' character, circus musician Vladimir Ivanoff, remembers risking being late for work, putting his job and his upcoming, much looked forward to trip to New York City with the circus in jeopardy, to jump into a long line outside a store to buy...he's not sure what. Toilet paper, he hopes. Whatever they're selling, he knows that.
In the Soviet Union, you see a line, you get in it, because everything's so scarce, store shelves are usually so empty, what's available is usually so expensive, that odds are whatever is on sale at the end of the line, you need it.
Or you can use it.
What's at the end of this particular line are men's shoes. Vladimir buys two pair, neither in his size, because there are none in his size, all the shoes are the same size, a size too small for most men. Vladimir doesn't care. He can sell the shoes at a profit or use them as bribes.
The privation, the corruption, the paranoia, the dullness, the way everybody lives on the borderline of poverty, how the consumer goods and the small luxuries that separate them from the truly poor are no compensations because they are ugly, badly made, cost too much in time and effort and rubles to obtain, how every relationship, friendships, family life, love affairs, marriage, is reduced to a business deal---we see a society and an economy horribly crippled by the fear and corruption and purposeful bureaucratic inefficiency necessary to keeping its own evil regime in power and our first thoughts are naturally, Three cheers for capitalism and How did we ever see this sorry nation as a threat to our way of life?
The answer to that second thought is that the Soviets had nuclear weapons and men as crazy and as soulless among their leadership as we had among ours.
Still, you wonder how our saner leaders didn't look at what was going on over there and think, We can outlast them, we can out sell them.
This isn't the place to get into the old containment vs confrontation debates or look at what a lot of our leaders were really looking for as an outcome to our rivalry with the Soviet Union---safe markets not new democracies.
As for the first thought, director Paul Mazursky more or less responds, Are you sure you want to cheer that enthusiastically? Maybe you should wait and see.
Mazursky takes a long while to get Vladimir to the United States where we know he's going to defect and where we expect the real plot of the movie's going to unfold, testing our patience, because he wants to show us something else about life in the Soviet Union first.
The way people cling to each other.
Despite the corrupting influence of money, actually the lack of it, on relationships---a marriage proposal, even a sincere one inspired by love, is phrased in starkly economic terms with a list of material benefits that would result---and the fear that any person you know and are close to and trust could turn out to be a KGB stooge---at one point Vladimir is given a choice, spy on your best friend and inform on him, or your beloved grandfather could wind up in a "mental hospital"----the people grab hold of each other, literally, and hold tight, because their only joy in life and their only solace is love.
In Sartre's No Exit, Hell is other people. In the Soviet Union, says Mazursky, all there is of heaven is other people.
With that established, he finally sends Vladimir to New York where he defects in Bloomingdales.
And for the first few scenes after he defects, the movie really does allow us, encourages us, to give three years for capitalism and the USA.
This really is a wonderful country.
Seeing it through Vladimir's eyes as he takes it all in for the first time choked me up.
God, I love this country!
But it is not a paradise, it is not heaven on earth, and it is not without its own forms of hell, even for the lucky like Vladimir.
First, there is just the overwhelming fact of freedom itself. To be able to go where you want, do what you want, be what you want to be---all those choices, all those decisions, all those problems that follow and all the more choices and decisions that have to be made after the first ones! Where do you start? How do you start? Why bother to start?
And having all that freedom to make choices doesn't necessarily mean you have the means to follow through. In America you are free to want everything. You can only have what you can afford.
Or what you know how to ask for. One of Vladimir's friends on his first job in America, washing dishes, is another recent arrival to America, an astrophysicist who has to work in a kitchen because he doesn't speak English well-enough to get a teaching job. He's worried that when he finally does master the language skills, his other skills as a scientist will have become out of date.
All those choices can be depressing too. Just because it's not as bad as it was back in Moscow doesn't mean that it's not dispiriting. Vladimir literally faints when he walks into a grocery store to buy coffee and faces an entire aisle full of fifty brands of coffee to choose from.
Not being able to choose is not as sad as having no choice, but the result is the same. You go home empty-handed.
Freedom means being able to rely on yourself, to not have to ask for favors or make deals just to get through a day (Which inspires the question, how free are any of us?), and that means people don't need each other as desperately as they did back home. Vladimir finds that all his new friendships are much looser than they were in Russia and likely to be temporary.
And the freedom to be your own self, to live your life your own way, to be the person you want to be, can make people jealous of themselves. It can make them resist any claim you might make on them, even the most well-meaning and caring claims, even the claims of love and affection. They will see it as an attempt to control them, as an attempt to steal from them a part of themselves.
On the day Vladimir's new American girlfriend, the Italian sales clerk under whose skirt he hid when he was fleeing his KGB handlers in Bloomingdales, played by Maria Conchita Alonso, becomes a US citizen she turns immediately cold and sullen. She finds a far corner to be alone and away from her family at the party celebrating her citizenship. She pulls away from Vladimir whenever he tries to hug her. She provokes a fight. When he storms off she looks triumphant.
It didn't help that he picked the moment she wanted most to be alone to propose and that he put his proposal in the old, Soviet-style way, as a matter of economic convenience to both of them, making her afraid that all he wanted out of her was a nicer apartment and his own path to citizenship smoothed out. And she's terrified of her new freedom as well. It has sunk in what it means to be able to call her life her own---she is on her own in a way she has no idea yet how to handle.
But what's really upsetting her is that now that she is truly her own person she doesn't want to share any of her new-found self with anybody else. She wants to enjoy it all to herself. She is, understandably, feeling extremely selfish---self-ish---and here's Vladimir trying to claim a major piece of her self away from her.
It isn't long before they break up.
This is how it goes with all of Vladimir's American connections. All his new friendships turn out to be transient or illusory or unreliable in some other way.
The only friend who sticks with him is his lawyer, Orlando, merrily played by Alejandro Rey making the case with his infectious grin that as miserable as life can be here, anywhere, there is still always much to enjoy and love, and Orlando isn't sticking because he likes Vladimir, although he does, very much; he's sticking because he's his lawyer and he's being paid to stick.
The crisis Mazursky has brought Vladimir's story to is spiritual. Freedom has come at soul-crushing price. For Vladimir, being an American, being a New Yorker at any rate, means being all on his own, which is to say, being terribly lonely.
His best friends have wandered away, paying in their way the prices of their own freedoms. The woman he loves wants nothing more to do with him. He will probably never see his family in Russia ever again. There are millions of people all around him but they are strangers and pretty much all of them are content, eager even, to remain strangers.
He is part of a crowd and apart from it. And what he must do is find a way to live with himself as his own best company, figure out how to use his freedom to make himself happy...or at least not miserable.
Thus the last scene of the movie. Vladimir, having found work as a musician again, sets up on a street corner to play his saxophone. Most of the passersby ignore him, but a few pause, listen, applaud, drop some coins, make a connection, a temporary one, and move on, leaving him alone in the crowd, playing his music for himself, making himself happy by himself.
Moscow on the Hudson. Directed by Paul Mazursky. Written by Paul Mazursky and Leon Capetanos. Starring Robin Williams, Maria Conchita Alonso, Alejandro Rey, Cleavant Derricks, and Elya Baskin. Columbia Pictures. 1984. Available to watch instantly at Amazon.
House special: Click on the photos above and below for video side dishes.
I expected Chef to examine the sometimes competing values of art and work, how to balance the urge to create and the need to make a living, the idiosyncratic natures of families and friendships, and, of course, the joy of cooking and eating good food.
I didn’t expect a satirical disquisition on the problematic benefits of social media, how to and how not to Twitter, and how, used intelligently and with real heart, as opposed to sentimentality, Vine can be a major force for good.
YouTube turns out to be another matter.
Written and directed by Jon Favreau and starring Favreau as the chef of the title, Carl Casper, Chef chronicles one crucial summer in Carl’s life as he tries, fumblingly and not quite determinedly, to get his once stellar career back on track by giving up haute cuisine to make and sell sandwiches off a food truck.
Up to some point shortly before the movie picks up, Carl seems to have had a wonderful life with a gorgeous and loving wife (Sofia Vergara), a son who idolizes him (Emjay Anthony), a still climbing reputation as one of the best chef’s in Los Angeles, a secure job at a renowned restaurant where he oversees a talented staff and loyal staff (led by John Leguizamo and Bobby Cannavale) who are more than devoted to him, they love him.
We’re meeting him, though, at a time when he’s become hard to love.
He’s querulous, defensive, short-fused, emotionally evasive and easily distracted---by his own thoughts. His mind seems always elsewhere. He’s a good boss to his staff but not much of a leader these days. He’s asking too much and too little and is incapable or, more likely, unwilling to explain things in a way that lets them know just what he wants, and this appears to be because he doesn’t know what he wants, out of them or for himself.
And he’s in the process of letting all the good things in his life slip away. He and his wife have divorced. When he can’t find an excuse not to be with his son, he hands him off to friends to watch while he busies himself with work, work, by the way, his son longs to take part in. This is a kid whose major demand is that his father teach him to be like him. And, at the moment, for the moment, he has a sexy and very low-maintenance girlfriend, Molly, the maitre d’ at the restaurant (Scarlett Johansson), but the basis of their affair is Molly’s understanding that he doesn’t really want a girlfriend and not taking it personally.
The only thing Carl seems committed to holding onto is his job at the restaurant but, we soon figure out, sticking with this job is a passive-aggressive way of letting his reputation slide.
It’s a good restaurant, and Riva, the owner (Dustin Hoffman), admires and respects Carl and his talents, but Riva knows his clientele and they’re not epicureans. They aren’t out for an adventure in fine dining. They want the gourmet equivalent of comfort food. Although he’s willing to let Carl experiment with a special now and then, what he wants---demands---is the same tried and true menu every night.
Carl needs something more. He just doesn’t seem to know that he needs it
Inez, his still loving and understanding ex-wife, knows. And she’s pretty sure of what it is he needs.
He needs to be his own boss and run his own restaurant, goals he’d been working toward and, truthfully, probably should have achieved well before now. In Inez’s non-judgmental opinion, he’s allowed himself to be to become too comfortable working at the restaurant. (Her opinion turns out to be shared by someone else, although he’s all too happy to wax judgmental when expressing it.) She’s decided his life needs shaking up and she’s hit on a plan.
A food truck.
Her idea is that a food truck will solve several of Carl’s problems at once. It will break him out of his stifling routine. It will allow him to be his own boss. And it will get him back to basics, making and serving food for people to enjoy for its own delicious sake and not out of an awed appreciation for the genius who made it.
Carl has consistently rejected the idea, for reasons of ego and professional pride---as you might expect of a master chef whose next step up ought to be a five-star restaurant of his own, Carl sees slinging sandwiches out of a truck parked at a beach as something of a step down---but there’s more to it.
He’s afraid to make any move, up or down, forward or backward, or sideways.
He’s as scared of success as he is of failure.
Carl’s reached a stage in his career where the next step requires a jump across a chasm and he’s frozen on the ledge. The leap required is a leap of faith in himself and he can’t manage it. Somewhere along the line he lost confidence in himself if not in his ability and now all his mental energy and focus are aimed at his keeping himself safely and securely teetering on the ledge. He doesn’t want to go backwards but he’s terrified of falling if he moves even an inch forward. And he’s convinced any demand on his attention will distract him and cause him to lose his balance.
Unfortunately, one demand is coming from his ten year old son Percy.
Carl wants to be a good and attentive father. He goes through the motions of being one. But everything he says to Percy, no matter how well meant and how tactfully or apologetically phrased, is a craven excuse for his neglect that he expects Percy to understand and accept without question, judgment, or complaint.
This can’t last.
Fortuitously, Carl bumbles his way into a Twitter war with a famous and famously caustic food critic (Oliver Platt) that leads to a face to face confrontation in the restaurant captured, of course, by fifty cell phones. A video goes viral---“I’m a cat playing the piano,” Carl laments of his sudden online celebrity. “I’m a meme!”---and Carl, humiliated, ashamed, and utterly baffled by what’s happening to him---he’s becoming famous but it doesn’t feel like a good thing---goes into hiding and then on the run. It’s a very low-velocity escape. He takes a trip to Miami with Inez and Percy to visit Inez’s father, a musician and singer at a nightclub in Little Havana (played by the salsero Jose C. “Perico” Hernandez. This is a good point to mention that Chef has a marvelous, eclectic soundtrack.) and at the club he’s served a Cuban sandwich that comes with a side of epiphany.
Two things dawn on him. These are really good sandwiches, the best he’s ever tasted, and he knows how to make them better.
Next thing we know, practically the next thing Carl knows himself, he’s cleaning, restoring, and outfitting a battered, grease-caked, rattletrap of a food truck, readying it for a drive back to California with stops along the way at Miami Beach, New Orleans, and Austin, Texas to sell sandwiches to pay for the trip.
He’s gotten the push he’s needed. But it’s not clear where it came from.
He might have stopped resisting Inez’s gentle prodding. He might have taken the less than subtle hint form the critic who, it turns out, is a disappointed early fan rooting for Carl to return to form. He might just be reflexively responding to circumstances that he might have unconsciously brought about himself. He might have finally made the decision he’d known he was going to have to make all along but had been putting off.
He might have activated his self-destruct button.
We can’t be sure what happened, because we’re never told.
One of the many beauties of Favreau’s screenplay is that his characters don’t waste time in conversation with each other on exposition. They are full of mixed and mixed-up emotions but don’t often pause to analyze or explain themselves. Carl, the most mixed up of the bunch, won’t sit still to listen to anyone who tries to analyze or explain him to himself.
They all have complicated backstories, too, or, actually, a backstory.
Chef is a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged cook but Carl, like a real human being, doesn’t exist as a self apart from the people he works with and loves, so a full portrait of the man is a portrait of the group. These people know each other well and they’ve been through a lot together. They know how they’ve got here together (here being not just inside this story but inside any particular scene) so they don’t need to stop and remind each other about what’s going on. This leaves them free to talk about what’s immediately in front of them, which makes for more dynamic, thing-specific, and sparer dialog than we hear in most “realistic” comedies and dramas, but leaves it up to us to work out what they’re thinking and feeling from allusions and references, as well as evasions, in what they’re saying and not saying. It’s like wandering in on conversations in real life where we can’t interrupt to ask, Will somebody please tell me what’s going on?
A lot of the fun is in the guessing game posed by the script but also in not guessing---in taking things at face value and just enjoying listening to these characters being themselves instead of explaining themselves.
Favreau takes a similarly oblique approach with his directing. Very often the point of an action, the beauty of it, the fun of it, is in watching the action for its own sake and not to see what it means or where it’s leading. This is especially true of scenes in which food is being prepared.
In most movies, scenes are shaped from the outside. That is, a scene is defined by what it takes to move the plot from one point to the next. When that point’s reached, the scene ends and a new scene begins. In Chef, Favreau shapes his scenes from the inside around what is being said and done. For the sake of what’s being said and done. A scene will begin when characters are still thinking and talking about something else before they haphazardly and randomly work their way to discussing what’s really the matter at hand and it will end unpredictably, without resolution, when they run out of words and are too baffled or angry or confused or chagrined to know what to say next or when they remember there’s something else they need to be doing and rush off to do it. Sometimes a new scene begins within a scene that hasn’t clearly ended when conversations get sidetracked by a new character bursting in with something else on his or her mind. Often it takes a moment to realize that’s happening, that the first scene’s over, the story’s been redirected, and a new scene’s begun without the camera moving or the time and place changing. More often, though, while the background changes, the actors change costumes, and it’s clear time (although not always how much time) has passed, the resulting effect is that Chef feels like one continuous scene. Kind of like life.
Carl is joined on his road-trip of self-rediscovery by his friend Martin, the saucier at Riva’s, who’s quit his job to follow Carl, and Percy who convinces his doubtful dad that working on a food truck is an ideal way for a ten year old to spend his summer vacation. And in watching these three cook their way across country that we see Chef’s major themes about work, art, and family and friendship put into direct action. Martin (Leguizamo) is a man of perfect faith, supremely confident that this enterprise is going to pay off in (enough) money and (a reasonable degree of) happiness because he has placed that faith in Carl’s talent. He’s not just a friend, he’s a true brother to Carl and uncle to Percy. Emjay Anthony as Percy is one of the least annoying child actors you’re ever likely to see, natural, intelligent without any off-putting precocity, good at conveying emotion without being cloying, precious, or bratty. This is a kid you wouldn’t mind having along for a three-thousand plus mile drive. He works hard, is quick on the uptake, and is eager to learn. As it happens, he also has a knack for using social media for marketing. Chef makes a good case that the best thing a father and son can do together to “bond” is share work and and practical knowledge. Forget spots, forget opening-up. Give the kid a tool and tool and show him how to use it.
As for the rest of the cast, Vergara is a curvaceous, broadly smiling island of placidity and heart. Oliver Platt deadpans his way marvelously through his scenes as the food critic, Ramsey Michel. His slow boil as he’s served one disappointing course after another is a masterpiece of not completely repressed anger. Robert Downey Jr is a one-scene wonder as Sofia’s other ex-husband, a charismatic but paranoid neurotic who manages to mix generosity with extreme selfishness. Bobby Cannavale, who should be in every movie, is happily in this one as Tony, Carl’s sous chef at Riva’s, an amiable alcoholic and screw-up outside the kitchen---he manages to arrive at work close to on time when he’s passed out in his car in the parking lot the night before---but who snaps to as soon as he has a knife or a sauce pan in hand. It’s implied that Tony’s life is saved when Carl’s seems to fall apart and he gets to take over as Riva’s chef de cuisine. Tony is an illustration of Chef’s theme that we’re all at our best when we’re working at something we love to do and are good at, but here again we’re not told. Or shown. Tony’s story continues off screen without updates, and Favreau leaves it up to us to figure it out.
Dustin Hoffman plays the type of character he was designed and built to play but which he’s played very few of since The Graduate, an ordinary human being with realistic problems, in this case a small business owner trying to keep afloat while balancing multiple and conflicting responsibilities. Riva, Carl’s soon-to-be former boss, admires and appreciates and likes Carl, but Carl isn’t his only employee. Riva feels a responsibility to keep his whole staff employed. He feels a responsibility to keep his loyal clientele happy. He feels a responsibility to himself to make a living. He feels a responsibility to Carl but Carl is making it difficult for him all around. We have a rooting interest in Riva’s standing up for Carl but, thanks to Hoffman’s earnest reasonableness and his convincing mix of affection, worry, disappointment, and repressed anger, when he lets him down we can’t help but think Riva might be doing the right thing.
Scarlett Johansson is another one getting to do what she hasn’t been doing much of lately, play an ordinary human being, although one who happens to be extraordinarily beautiful. Johansson is a member in high standing of the best crop of young leading actresses to come along in my lifetime, but next to the likes of Amy Adams, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, and Emily Blunt (with Emma Stone coming up behind them), she is the least natural and versatile, the most unsure of how to present herself to the camera and the one most lacking in confidence in her own voice. You can see the wheels turning as she calculates how to turn her head or phrase a line. And she never seems to know how to shape those incredibly luscious lips. But all that works for her in Chef, just as it does in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and for a similar reason.
In both she plays characters uncertain how to deal with men who, for different reasons in different ways, are difficult to deal with. Black Widow is trying to figure out how to get Cap to like and trust her. Molly knows Carl likes and trusts her but she’s aware that neither will count for much if she says the wrong thing or makes a wrong thing and sets him off on tempter tantrum or sinks him into a sulk, or chases him out the door. It makes sense that she would be cautiously thinking her way through every conversation.
Looking back to Lost in Translation, though, I’m wondering if this is deliberate career choice, that Johansson has been making a sub-specialty of playing characters who are baffled by their temperamental male leads.
Speaking of male leads.
I wouldn’t say Favreau gives the best performance by an actor directing himself since Orson Welles did it in Citizen Kane. But it’s the best performance by an actor directing himself I can think of at the moment since Orson Welles did it in Citizen Kane.
Directing yourself is a challenge it’s probably wisest not to take on. The divide in attention required causes problems in front of and behind the camera. Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, and Woody Allen have usually handled it by playing their standard movie personas. George Clooney likes to cast himself in secondary roles when he directs. All four lower the demands on themselves as actors. But Favreau gives a fully developed, totally honest character performance. He’s made it harder on himself by making Carl difficult to sympathize with, at least for the first third of the film. As I said, we’re meeting Carl at a time in his life when he’s hard to love. He’s irritable, contentious, mercurial, and often cruel to his family and friends. On top of all that he’s wrong. I don’t mean his opinions and judgments are incorrect or mistaken. I mean that he’s routinely in the wrong because he’s operating from premises that are wrong, emotionally, psychologically, professionally, and even morally. Favreau makes us see all that about Carl and excepts us to disapprove of him or at least be disappointed in him and yet still keeps us interested in him and rooting for him. He does this in a number of ways that should be taught in every acting class. But one of the best ways is his showing us that Carl is really, really, really good at what he does by having trained himself to be really, really, really good at doing what Carl is supposed to be doing himself.
I don’t know how good a cook Favreau learned to be, but if you’re ever in a bar bet over who can slice a carrot fastest and thinnest, put your money on Favreau.
Now. About the food.
I can’t even begin…
Chef really is about the joy of cooking. Not so much of eating. Cinematographer gives his camera’s loving attention to the preparation. The digging is left to the imagination.
Watching Chef will make you hungry, but it might also make you want to rush out as soon as it’s over to buy a cookbook and a set of high-quality chef’s knives.
There’s a scene in which Carl and Molly go back to his apartment after work and he sets about preparing them a late night snack. With most couples, this would be something to do after. For these two, we suspect, it’s their favorite form of foreplay. The camera cuts back and forth between shots of Carl cooking, ingredients going into and out of pans---it’s a pasta dish---and Molly, reclining on her side on the couch, her tight black sweater falling off one shoulder, her short, tight skirt riding up her thigh, a look of lubricious expectation on in her eyes, her lips parted in anticipatory delight, and when I saw Johansson like that I leaned over to Mrs M and whispered, “I want that.”
“I do too,” Mrs M replied.
We both meant the meal.
Here’s the recipe.
Fun article from Yahoo Movies about how Favreau trained for Chef by taking over Gwyneth Paltrow’s kitchen.
At GrubStreet, food critic Adam Platt interviews his brother Oliver Platt about the role of critics in art and to what degree Oliver modeled his character on Adam.
If you are inspired to buy a cookbook by Chef, the cookbook you’d want is one by Roy Choi, the chef who trained Favreau and provided many of the recipes for the dishes prepared in the film. Unfortunately, Choi hasn’t published a true cookbook that I have found. He has, however, written a memoir that includes many of his favorite recipes. It’s called L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food and it’s available at Amazon in hardcover and for kindle.
And Judy Walker of the Times-Picayune has posted the recipe for Carl’s Cubano sandwiches and included a link to a free e-cookbook with more recipes featured in the movie.
Chef, written and directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson, Oliver Platt, Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey Jr. Rated R. Now in theaters.
Top, 8017 West 3rd, Los Angeles, CA 90048 in 1997 when a scene from The Big Lebowski was filmed there. Below, same spot today.
They’re from a gallery, 9 Famous Movie Locations, Then and Now at Mental Floss. Movies include Shaft, Serpico, Vertigo, Ghostbusters, and Taxi Driver. Some of the locations actually look better now than they did then and a few are surprisingly close to unchanged. Take a look.
There’s a moment in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that when I saw it in the theater made my heart soar.
It comes as the inevitable last big, noisy CGI mess of a battle begins. We see Cap, in extreme long shot, make a running leap off an aerial runway and begin to plummet towards the deck of one of the giant flying death machines about to launch on a mission to wipe out a tenth of the population of the United States. For a second, as he falls, the screen around him fills with shades of battleship gray and Cap is reduced to a speck of bright red, white, and blue.
Lots can be read into that moment, but the main thing to take away is that in the midst of this massive swirl of ambiguity, confusion, and existential threat, there’s Cap being Cap, the goodest of good guys till the end.
And here’s something we know. In addition to trying to stop the agents of Hydra from carrying out their mission of mass murder, Cap intends to confront his new arch-nemesis, the Winter Soldier. What we know is that when he catches up with him, Cap will not snap the bad guy’s neck.
I hope Zack Snyder took a break from filming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to go see The Winter Soldier and maybe learn a few things about how to portray the goodest of good guys on screen.
I’m not sure he knows what it means to be good or that he even believes goodness exists.
The makers of Captain America: The Winter Soldier know and believe. The directors, brothers Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely fill the movie with instances of Cap’s many virtues and you could follow along checking them off on a list: Courage, fidelity, honesty, humility, generosity, self-denial, self-effacement, selflessness, faith, hope, charity, mercy, forbearance, all the cardinal virtues including purity or, if you will, chastity, which does not mean celibacy---We don’t know if Steve Rogers is a virgin. The movie’s humorously coy about that. We do know that he’s devoted to the woman he still calls his best girl, Agent Peggy Carter, even though she kept aging after he fell into the ice in 1945 and was quick-frozen for the next seventy years and is now ninety years old and, apparently, in hospice care. But even though his faithfulness to Peggy is now purely chivalric and he’s about to lose her for good this time, he’s still impervious (although not oblivious) to the seductive charms of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow.
But the Russos never stop the narrative in its tracks for scenes of Cap demonstrating his virtuousness and Markus and McFeely haven’t clogged up their dialog with mini-sermons on what makes Cap Cap. They trust us to pick up on that, or, actually, take it for a given, as the story moves along. And in addition to trusting us, they trust someone else.
Their leading man.
Chris Evans carries it off with grace, wit, intelligence, modesty, charm, and----this is very important---conviction. Also, and also very important, a sense of humor.
As I’ve said in previous posts, Evans is an honors graduate of the Christopher Reeve School of How to Play a Superhero.
Before I take this further and risk turning this review into a sermon itself, let me stop here to praise Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a superheroic feat of moviemaking.
Of course, it’s a superhero movie. A very good superhero movie. One of the four best since the first X-Men made the genre as respectable as other genres like Westerns, War Movies, Romantic Comedies, and Spy thrillers. But very good genre movies tend to be very good movies never mind their genre and to have as much in common with other very good movies never mind their genres as with others of their own kind. The Winter Soldier is a terrific superhero movie, but it’s also a terrific spy thriller in the manner of the best Bonds, particularly Skyfall, which was a genre-bender in its own right. And while Skyfall referenced more realistic spy thrillers like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Winter Soldier pays homage to Three Days of the Condor, which I’ll bet Evans’ co-star Robert Redford noticed and appreciated.
And, as with X-Men: Days of Future Past, when The Winter Soldier is in traditional Spy Thriller-mode, it almost doesn’t matter that the heroes have superpowers. Throughout the whole middle act, Cap might as well be Bond, considering what the plot has him doing, with Black Widow as his more heavily-armed and more gymnastic Pussy Galore. The differences are that where Bond takes on five guys, Cap can take on twenty, and when Bond punches someone they fly ten feet and when Cap does they fly thirty.
Our story so far: Since the Battle of New York that was the center of The Avengers, Steve Rogers has been working as an agent for the no-longer ultra-secret super counterintelligence-counterterrorism organization S.H.I.E.L.D. but he’s not enjoying the work. As he says himself, he’s a soldier not a spy. But he’s a special breed of soldier, and I don’t mean a super-soldier. He’s a typical soldier of World War II which makes him a citizen soldier. He’s a volunteer who fights for principles. He’s missed the Cold War, Vietnam, Watergate, the beginnings of the War on Terror and so he sees things in terms of right and wrong, not us against them. He wants to know---needs to know---that what he’s doing is right, but nothing his boss, S.H.I.E.L.D’s awesome but enigmatic and somewhat sinister director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is willing to tell him reassures him. Just the opposite in fact.
There’s a reason Fury’s so evasive, though. It turns out that remnants of Hydra, the Nazi army within the Nazi army that was potentially even more dangerous than the regular Nazis and that Cap defeated when he made what he thought at the time was the ultimate sacrifice at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. While Cap was frozen, Hydra regrouped and, slowly, over the course of two generations, they infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D to the point where they are now in the position to take over and use S.H.I.E.L.D’s own weapons and resources to wage apocalyptic war on the entire United States. Once they’ve defeated the U.S, they intend to move on to dominating the whole world. Fury has discovered Hydra’s plan but before he can decide if he can truly trust the very few people he’s inclined to trust, Cap being one of them, and enlist them to help him thwart Hydra, Hydra sends their deadliest assassin, the Winter Soldier, to eliminate him. Cap, to whom Fury was only able to divulge a part of the plan, becomes Hydra’s next target, and the chase is on.
Cap, with the help of the only two people he knows he can trust, Black Widow, whose loyalty is without question because it turns out to have been wholly to Fury and not S.H.I.E.L.D itself, and an outsider, a veteran of Afghanistan named Sam Wilson, soon and almost accidentally to be known as the flying superhero the Falcon, sets out on the run to figure out the whole of Hydra’s scheme and how to stop it while eluding, outwitting, and out-fighting Hydra’s army of hitmen, including the Winter Soldier.
Like I said, a Bond movie with those differences I mentioned, plus one more. Bond is essentially a loner. Cap likes company. He believes in having company as a virtue. Captain America is a teamplayer and a team leader. But, at heart, he’s a teammate. That is, he’s a friend.
You might remember which other goodest of good guys identifies himself as “a friend.”
I mentioned how the Russos and their screenwriters don’t take The Winter Soldier off-track for scenes only there to play up Cap’s virtues. But they do send it on a little side trip for a scene in which Cap---Steve Rogers, actually---makes a bedside visit to Peggy (Hayley Atwell in old-age make-up reprising her role from The First Avenger) in her hospital room. Many of Steve’s softer virtues are on display. He’s kind, tender, solicitous, chivalrous, and tactful---he’s aware of what’s past and what can never be and of the differences that separate them and will soon separate them forever, but he’s careful not to say anything to call attention to those sad truths.
It’s a touching scene, but more so because of what she does.
Peggy brings up their ages---well, her aging---and he failing health as a prelude to letting him know she understands what he’s going through and that she’s worried about him. She assures him that, although it nearly killed her when she thought he’d died, she went on to have a good life. She was happy. What bothers her, she tells him, is that he wasn’t able to have his life. Which at first might seem like a strange thing to say to someone who is physically twenty-eight years old and thanks to his super-resiliency to injury and illness might live another one hundred and fifty. He has several lifetimes ahead of him. Plenty of time to have a life.
But not that life.
What she’s saying is that the life he was on the way to having was interrupted in a way that made it impossible to re-continue as he’d planned. His hopes and dreams and expectations---including marrying his “best girl” and starting a family with her---will never be realized because everyone he needed to share that life and help bring it about is gone or is too old and about to be gone. He’s alone, is what she means, and lonely. And he’s about to become even lonelier, and her heart aches for him because she knows how sad that makes him.
It’s a question filmmakers, TV producers, and the creators of comic books have been asking themselves since they collectively realized the real money wasn’t in marketing superheroes to kids: How do you make superheroes into “realistic” characters adults can identify with?
The answer has been, generally, to burden them with emotionally crippling backstories to which they react tragically by acting-out their angst, self-pity, rage, or all three.
A better answer is to have them react to the plot and other characters with a wide-variety of ordinary and natural emotions and let good actors act them out.
Steve Rogers has a tragic backstory but it doesn’t fill him with angst, self-pity, or rage. One of his virtues is an emotional resiliency that matches his physical resilience. He knows bad things happen to everyone, and worse and much worse to many, so he deals and he copes and he carries on. In short, he’s a grown-up about it. But he misses his family and friends and he is lonely and that does make him sad. Realistically sad.
And among Chris Evans’ virtues as an actor is an ability to make Steve Rogers’ sadness felt throughout without letting it drown his natural ebullience, optimism, and good-humor. Peggy’s worries are well-founded. But Steve---Captain America---is still a man capable of joy.
Still, this is a problem for someone who makes virtues of having company and being a friend. Captain America believes no one should go it alone or can go it alone, not even a superhero, and here he is, alone.
And this is another way The Winter Soldier isn’t just a superhero movie or why it almost doesn’t matter that the main characters have superpowers. An important part of the story is resolving Cap’s problem and so one of its themes is the nature of friendship.
The story presents Cap with two potential friends, Sam Wilson, soon to be known as the Falcon and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s top field agent and assassin Natasha Romanoff, known for good reason as the Black Widow.
Wilson is easy. He and Cap share a common background as returning combat veterans having trouble fitting back into civilian life. But as smoothly underplayed by Anthony Mackie, Wilson is no pushover. He admires Cap but he’s not awestruck. He knows is own strengths and he’s confident of his ability to work with Cap as the Falcon. But he’s also confident that he can be a real help to him as a friend. He knows what Cap needs from him and he gives it without a thought.
Things between Cap and Black Widow (Johansson) are more complicated. Their shared background is as agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., work that doesn’t make Cap especially happy. And Cap doesn’t think of her as real friend material and nothing she says or does through the first half of the movie inclines him to change his mind. He’s not hostile. Just wary. And this is her problem.
She’s not ideal friend material, for one thing, being a stone-cold killer by training and a loner by necessity, habit, and temperament. She doesn’t know how to go about being a real friend, generally, but she’s at a serious loss with Cap. She can’t figure out how to get around his formidable good guy-ness---that’s part of her problem. She sees his essential nature as something to get around. Her approach to him is the same as her approach to any mark she has to deal with in the spy game. She tries to manipulate him. She messes with him. Every chance she gets. Every way she can think of. Which doesn’t work at all, and that confuses her no end. More baffling, though, is she’s learning from watching him that she didn’t know what it means and what it takes to be a good guy. She’d thought all it took in her case was to switch sides from killing for the Russians to killing for Nick Fury (to whom she’s more loyal than she is to S.H.I.E.L.D. Actually, for her Fury is S.H.I.E.L.D.). Being around Cap is making her aware of something she didn’t know or care she had, a conscience. A guilty conscience.
To her surprise and consternation, she realizes she needs Cap not just to like her and want her as a friend but to absolve her.
Ok, I’m rambling my way back into a sermon.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a terrific action-adventure movie with a witty and intelligent script full of snappy dialogue, a story that offers real suspense (if not all that much of a mystery) and puts matters of real and realistic importance at risk, and well-choreographed fight and chase scenes that don’t turn into extended ads for the video game but have tension, energy, excitement, and payoffs of their own while moving the plot along. The supporting cast is fine and the leading man is attractive, interesting, sympathetic, and real, not to mention one of the most frightening movie villains since Odd-Job.
I had to get Bond back in here somehow. But trust me. The Winter Soldier is scary. Not going to tell you who plays him because that might be a spoiler but even though he has virtually no lines and half his face is covered through more than half the movie, just with his glare and his body language commands the screen every second he’s on it.
I think I’ve made it clear I’m pretty high on Evans. Mackie and Johansson are fine too. Samuel L. Jackson is Samuel L. Jackson and it says something about the movie, the moviemakers, and Jackson himself that one of the most exciting action sequences features not Cap on his own but Fury on his own and the best and most exciting special effect in the sequence is Jackson himself.
Robert Redford as Fury’s boss, Alexander Pierce, does a good job of doing what he’s in the movie to do, make us forget why Robert Redford is playing this part. Frank Grillo makes a compelling and charismatically dangerous double-agent. Maximilliano Hernandez makes a compellingly cowardly one. Toby Jones returns for an amusing, creepy, and perhaps too clever cameo as the evil but cowardly mad scientist from Captain America: The First Avenger, Dr Arnim Zola, who has discovered his own way of outliving all his old friends, if he had any, and enemies. Garry Shandling shows up too, crossing over from Iron Man 2 for a cameo as the smarmy Senator Stern whose dislike of Tony Stark turns out to have something more to it than his inability to tolerate a wiseass. And Stan Lee rides again in what I think is his best cameo yet. Yep. Even better than the one in The Amazing Spider-Man. Nuff said.
To get back to what I said about one of the themes of The Winter Soldier being the nature of friendship, presumably that’s something that will feature in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, since it’s centered on the world’s finest friendship. In The Winter Soldier Cap begins to make new friends, but here’s the thing. They’re going to be friends of Captain America not of Steve Rogers, because, basically, Steve Rogers does not exist in 2014. There’s just no place for him and he has yet to make one for himself. Consequently, he has no life of his own apart from being Captain America.
That other goodest of good guys, however, has a life apart from being Superman. In fact, his life is apart from being Superman. Being Superman is just his job and whenever he wants he can put it aside to live his life as Clark Kent.
The Winter Soldier sets things up for The Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America 3 to continue to deal with the sadness and loneliness that are at the center of Cap’s character.
Superman---Clark Kent---isn’t sad, isn’t lonely. He is that hardest of all characters to portray. The happy, well-adjusted hero.
Watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier won’t help Zack Snyder with that. He’ll have to figure out how to deal with it on his own.
Frankly, I’m not optimistic.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, screenplay by Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely. Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Frank Grillo, Cobie Smulders, Toby Jones, Hayley Atwell, Robert Redford, and Samuel L. Jackson. Rated PG-13. Still in theaters.
X-Men: Days of Future Past includes a slow motion action scene set in the Pentagon kitchen that’s one of the most thrilling and funny set-pieces yet filmed for a superhero movie.
It also includes one of the best ads for duct tape ever.
Both star supporting player Evan Peters as second-tier X-Man Quicksilver, who almost runs away with the movie.
Evans’ Quicksilver isn’t called Quicksilver, though, and he’s not to be taken as the same Quicksilver who’ll be a character in The Avengers 2: Age of Utron, except that he is.
Don’t worry about it. It’s business.
The thing to worry about---or I should say the thing I wish director Bryan Singer had worried more about---is that after the scene in the kitchen Quicksilver vanishes from the movie in a flash and with him goes most of the inventiveness and humor that up till that point had Days of Future Past on its way to being better than Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which means on its way to being one of the very best superhero movies yet filmed.
After Quicksilver’s speedy exit, Days of Future Past settles down into a routine chase movie, with the narrative trajectory and hitting the same sort of plot points as any and every Daniel Craig as Bond-Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne-inspired action-adventure. The fights and stunts are designed to make use of the fact that the characters have superpowers, but the point is they don’t have to have those powers for the story to work. In a more realistic sort of thriller (more realistic as in more bound by the laws of physics and biology), Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique would be a quick change artist instead of a shapeshifter and the bad guys she kicked, punched, flipped, threw, and karate chopped would go flying only ten feet or so and not thirty; otherwise she would go about her business without any other changes in her part in the plot.
And our trio of heroes, James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, and Nicholas Hoult’s Beast, don’t need their superpowers for most of what they do in their attempts to hunt Mystique down and stop her before she accidentally brings about the end of the world. They’re like the teams from Mission:Impossible, Burn Notice, Red, The Seven Samurai, any number of Westerns and heist movies, or, as it happens, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in which Cap, Black Widow, and Falcon get done a lot of what they get done without needing their superpowers. (Technically, Black Widow and Falcon don’t even have superpowers.)
This is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. The less a superhero movie is about the characters having superpowers and displaying them and the more it’s about the heroes (and villains) having to think and feel their way through their adventures and perils like heroes and villains in those more realistic action-adventures, the better it is as a movie, let alone a superhero movie.
That’s what I liked about X-Men: First Class. It wasn’t as much about the forming of a team of superheroes (and a team of supervillains) as it was about the formation and dissolution of a friendship between two extraordinarily talented and intelligent and principled men who happened to have superpowers.
(I was about to call First Class a reboot of the X-Men franchise, but Days of Future Past makes the word “reboot” an iffy call now.)
And what I really like about Days of Future Past is that it continues that story by showing how one of those men, the better but far more damaged of the two, gets over the heartbreak and self-pity that have crippled him emotionally (Ironically, he’s been “cured” of his actual physical crippling.) since the loss of that friendship by strengthening another old friendship and forging a new one with two other extraordinarily talented and principled men and how with their help he’s able to attempt to save the world from the Sentinels and in the process the lives and the souls of the two people he loves most, despite their not being worthy of his love.
Unfortunately, come the movie’s third act, Singer feels compelled to turn Days of Future Past into a more standard superhero movie and this means making a big, noisy mess in extended scenes of wanton destruction on a massive scale, with screaming crowds running back and forth across the screen wily-nily as debris rains down on them and things explode around them and an over-reliance on CGI.
This happens in Captain America: The Winter Soldier too. The difference is that the final battle grows out of the story, it’s not there just for convention’s sake, it’s set up throughout the course of the movie and unfolds exactly as it’s supposed to because Cap has a plan he shares with the audience before things turn messy and noisy, so we know where the fight scenes are headed.
And directors Joe and Anthony Russo let Cap, Falcon, Black Widow, and the Winter Soldier lead us through their sequences in the big battle. Singer loses track of his main characters in the mayhem, giving us nothing to focus on in the mess and no sense this is taking the story anywhere, like, for instance, a climax.
It feels like it’s just going to go on and on.
It doesn’t, of course. And the movie isn’t ruined. It’s a let down, but Singer puts things right in the end.
And if he lets the big moments crash and bang to little purpose, Days of Future Past is filled with small touches, grace notes, subtle moments of humor, poignancy, and delightful surprise that reveal character, twist the plot, defy our expectations, and deepen the story while moving it forward in ways that keep things fun and, well, real.
The scene in the Pentagon kitchen is one beautiful small touch after another.
Quick plot summary: Sometime in the near future (the present being around whenever we’ve been left at the end of X-Men: Last Stand), an army of quasi-intelligent, nearly invincible giant robots called the Sentinels are waging an apocalyptic war against mutants and all humans who are their allies. Most of the X-Men have been wiped out. The last surviving X-Men, who include old favorites Professor X, Magneto, Wolverine, Storm, Shadowcat, Iceman, and Colossus (guest stars Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, and Daniel Cudmore) and some awesome newcomers to the movie franchise, Bishop, Blink, Sunspot, and Warpath (Omar Sy, Bingbing Fan, Adan Canto, and Booboo Stewart) have holed up in a temple in the Himalayas to make a final, forlorn stand.
But before the Sentinels arrive, they figure out that if Shadowcat can use a power I didn’t know she had to transport one of their number mentally back in time to the moment when the Sentinels were created, where with the help of Professor X’s younger self and any of the original X-Men who can be rounded up, they can prevent the mad scientist who invented the Sentinels from obtaining the knowledge and material he needed to invent them.
That moment was in 1973 and the X-Man chosen to make the trip back in time is Wolverine---Logan---because A. he was alive then and can occupy his own younger body and B. he’s played by Hugh Jackman and it’s Jackman as Wolverine that most of the audience is there to see.
Logan’s first task is to track down the forty year old Charles Xavier and convince him he’s there to transmit a distress signal from forty or so years in the future, a job slightly complicated by the fact that in 1973 Logan and Xavier hadn’t yet met and become friends and Xavier might not swallow a time-travel story from a grouchy stranger with weird hair and anger-management issues. The bigger complication is that Charles is an emotional wreck. Not only has he given up his great powers, he’s given up on the idea that those powers can be used to do the world good. His heart is still in the right place but he’s lost the will and his faith in human- and mutant-kind and in himself. It’s up to Logan to snap him out of it, and as Wolverine fans know, dealing with the softer emotions is not Logan’s strong suit.
This puts the focus equally on McAvoy’s Charles Xavier as on Jackman, but Jackman does something I don’t think he’s had to do in any of his previous movies, relegate himself to playing second fiddle. This is Charles’ story and Logan is its witness. Jackman keeps himself reined in, even in his scenes apart from McAvoy. He’s on the lookout as opposed to on the prowl, having exchanged Logan’s usual wariness for a watchfulness that reminds us that this is not about him.
McAvoy continues to do what he started in First Class, take the character of Charles Xavier away from Patrick Stewart the way Ewan McGregor took Obi-wan away from Alec Guinness. In my review of First Class (The superhero as the only adult in the room) I said that McAvoy wisely doesn’t try to play a young Patrick Stewart because Patrick Stewart was never young. What he’s succeeded in doing, though, is giving Xavier a young self that can be read into Stewart’s old Professor X. I would bet that Stewart, canny and knowing and generous as he is, is aware he’s now playing an old James McAvoy and has adjusted accordingly. In the one scene they have together, Stewart is clearly laying back to let McAvoy define their relative roles and we see McAvoy’s Charles as the real Professor X and Stewart as his shadow.
X-Men: First Class was more Magneto’s story than Xavier’s which made it more Michael Fassbender’s movie than McAvoy’s. Singer has maybe overcompensated this time out, underusing Fassbender to the point that he might as well not be in there and Magneto’s whole part handled by stunt doubles and CGI, which, I’m pretty sure, is often the case. And Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t have much to do as Mystique except look sly before a shapeshift and smug afterwards. But she carries off her various 1970s fashion ensembles well and in fact looks more authentically 70s than she did in American Hustle. That’s possibly due to the lighting or, rather, to Days of Future Past being lit. American Hustle is mostly shadowed. It’s hard to remember, but the sun did shine sometimes between 1970 and 1980. Nixon didn’t cover up the sun, and Reagan didn’t bring it back out.
Speaking of Nixon, he’s a character in Days of Future Past. That’s not a warning, just a fact. He’s a character. Not a statement. Not an irony. Not a joke. Not a political comment. He’s simply President Nixon, temporarily distracted from Watergate and achieving “Peace With Honor” in Vietnam by the sudden and unexpected threat posed by giant robots and mutants with superpowers. While Mark Camacho does a good job of playing Nixon as a character out of a comic book, as opposed to out of a Herblock cartoon (although he’s a bit stocky for the part), the best thing about his being in there is another one of Singer’s grace notes---an explanation for the 18 1/2 minute gap in the tapes.
As the young Hank McCoy, Nicholas Hoult is suitably insecure and even unnerved in the face of his own mutant powers, suggesting Hank’s future lusty embrace of his great intellect, ferocious strength, and luxurious blue hairiness as the X-Man known as the Beast by his chagrined resistance to all that. Peter Dinklage embues Bolivar Trask, the creator of the Sentinels, with the most frightening form of madness, complete sanity. And, as suggested up top, Evan Peters is a joy to watch as Quicksilver when he slows down long enough to let us catch sight of him.
I was never of a fan of the X-Men when I was comic book-reading kid and the first three movies left me cold. So I’ll leave it to fans to sort out how Days of Future Past fits in with the books and the other movies and how it revises and alters the continuities. It looked to me that it takes us up to the beginning of the original trilogy, which would mean, unfortunately, that X-Men: Last Stand is still part of the timeline. But then so is The Wolverine, which takes up where Last Stand left off. So that’s good. But Oliver Mannion says that it erases all of the first three and he has a list of clues, which I won’t repeat because they amount to spoilers, that support that conclusion.
He may be right.
But know what?
I don’t care.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is now the best X-Men movie. But that doesn’t matter. Days of Future Past, like First Class, is enjoyable for its own sake. You don’t need to have seen the other movies or even know they exist to get into them. It’s a good superhero movie, a very good superhero movie, falling just short of Captain America: The Winter Soldier on my list. (For the record, the best are Iron Man, Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, and The Winter Soldier with Superman and Superman II occupying a special pride of place.) And here’s the thing about very good superhero movies.
They’re like very good westerns and very good war movies and very good thrillers and very good romantic comedies.
Genre doesn’t signify.
They’re just good movies.
Logan has gone through plenty of hard times and rough patches in his long life---World War II, for example, was no picnic for him. See The Wolverine. I mean it. SEE The Wolverine.---but the 70s don’t seem to have been particularly miserable for him. Mostly he seems to have forgotten them. Still, this isn’t a nostalgia trip for him. Returning to what Doonesbury eulogized as that “kidney stone of a decade” is a series of reminders of irritations and annoyances, which sets up one of my favorites of Singer’s grace notes.
Coming out of the cheap hotel where he’s just awakened inside his 1970s self and in bed with a gangster’s girlfriend, Logan tries to pick out from among the many cars lining the street the ride he’s “borrowed” from a thug who no longer needs it by pointing the keys and pushing the button he immediately realizes isn’t there because remote-controlled door locks haven’t been invented yet. He looks momentarily annoyed, making a note to himself why he doesn’t miss these particular good old days, then does an instantaneous bit of detective work worthy of another perpetually angry comic book hero.
Which made me wonder.
Have DC and Marvel ever teamed up for a Batman-Wolverine crossover?
X-Men: Days of Future Past, directed by Bryan Singer, screenplay by Simon Kinberg. Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellan. Rated PG-13. Now in theaters.
I wonder how many people think that the soldiers who died looking for Bowe Bergdahl were on a Saving Private Ryan style mission together. That’s apparently not what happened.
They weren’t out looking for Bergdahl. They were on the lookout for him while they were out on other missions. This isn’t a trivial distinction. It means that it is in fact almost impossible to say that they died on account of Bergdahl or for his sake because they were in harm’s way for reasons that would have placed them there even if Bergdahl hadn’t gone missing. They died in combat in a combat zone and, although it sounds callous, their deaths may have been routine. So it’s debatable how much they should figure in deciding whether Bergdahl was worth saving.
But while they’re thinking of Saving Private Ryan they should be thinking about this.
Saving Matt Damon was not worth losing Tom Hanks.
Now, Private Ryan seems to be a good enough kid. Definitely not someone who deserves to die. But he’s ordinary. Captain Miller, though, is extraordinary or at least exemplary. In the grand scheme of things, the world can do without a few Private Ryans here and there, but it needs more Captain Millers. Sending Miller to die for Ryan is a great unfairness, and Miller himself feels that unfairness, on behalf of his family and his men more than on his own. But he does still feel it. It infuriates him. He resents it. He would resist it except that he accepts the principle.
We don’t judge each other’s worth that way.
We don’t say, “Before I bother to care what happens to you, prove to me you deserve to be cared about and cared for.”
We operate from the belief that we are all worth it. In and of ourselves and not relative to other human beings.
We are all worth it because we are all human beings.
We care about and care for everybody, including the least deserving, because it’s our responsibility to care for the whole human race. You are worth it because you are one of us, no matter how much you’ve done to make us think otherwise. In caring for you, we are caring for everybody. On the individual level that means that in saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller is saving himself.
Say Sergeant Bergdahl was a deserter, and we have to say it because we don’t really know that he was, that’s an accusation made by members of his outfit who may not have been worth saving themselves had they been taken prisoner. Given all we know that’s gone on over there, they might have committed atrocities, they might have been cowards and shirkers, they might have been rapists. The same goes for the men who died looking for Bergdahl. We don’t know. We’re not asking. It’s beside the point, at the moment. Bergdahl may have been a deserter, he looks more like a bit of a flake with a history of going walkabout, but he may have deserted, and, again, say he did.
Does that make him less than one of us?
And by us, I mean us human beings, not us Americans.
Did he deserve to be left to die?
More than you? More than me? More than whom?
The war---wars---have been going on for thirteen years. Every grown man and woman in the country under fifty could have volunteered to go fight. Every one under forty still could. Bowe Bergdahl did. He fought that war for several months before he was taken prisoner. How many people now saying he deserved to be left to die did not fight a single minute because they were too frightened, too complaisant, too selfish, too indifferent, too willing to let the Bowe Bergdahls do it for them? How then do they dare give themselves the right to judge Bergdahl’s deserving?
Bowe Bergdahl went. It didn’t work out very well for him. But he went.
In my judgment that makes him more deserving than any of the chickenhawks and Sunshine Patriots.
But who am I to judge?
What makes me think I’m deserving?
It’s as I’ve said, “Looked at close, none of us is worth it” or as Hamlet said, “Use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?”
So we don’t just treat each other as if we’re all Private Ryans. We assume we are. And we don’t assume we, ourselves, are Captain Millers. We assume we aren’t.
We don’t demand proof someone deserves saving because we believe everyone does.
And because someday we may need saving ourselves and we don’t want to have to prove we’re worth it.
In saving Private Ryan, and Sergeant Bergdahl, grandly and meanly, we’re saving ourselves.
Over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Scott is doing a virtual spit-take at the ad copy for a new biography of Robert E. Lee, a man Scott calls, in keeping with LGM’s stylebook rule of calling the American Civil War the War of Treason in Defense of Slavery (also in keeping with history), “traitor in defense of slavery”:
In Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, Michael Korda, the New York Times bestselling biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ulysses S. Grant, and T. E. Lawrence, has written the first major biography of Lee in nearly twenty years, bringing to life America’s greatest and most iconic hero.
Scott’s bold-facing. Now his response:
Really? The very greatest American hero? We can’t think of a single of the many Americans who have not rebelled against the American government in order to protect the right of wealthy whites to own black slaves who might be worthy of this honor?
And he offers a few suggestions:
Martin Luther King? Abraham Lincoln? Willie Mays? The tailor who successfully hemmed the sleeves of my sports jacket last week?
Here you can feel him pause for a silent but definite Jesus H. Christ on Toast! before he continues:
I figure we should get around to honoring confederate generals sometime well after we lionize the nation’s telemarketers. Although I might be willing to rank Lee above the people who created those DirectTV marionette ads.
The object is to sell books, of course, as Scott knows, and he suggests the target audience for that blurb. (Commenter Jim is more direct if less colorful: “this is a sales pitch aimed at the re-enactors and lost cause-rs”.) Knowing that is only mollifying to the most jaded cynic.
Coming up on a hundred and fifty years since Lee was allowed to ride off from Appomattox Courthouse instead of being clapped in irons and hauled off to Washington to be tried for treason, we’re still selling an alternative history of the Civil War to Southerners and Confederate sympathizers in which slavery played no role and the South’s was somehow a noble cause or at least the soldiers who fought for it were noble men.
Another reader, Michael Confoy, links to a review by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner in which Foner gets quick to the point that Clouds of Glory isn’t an alternative history or a hagiography or an apology for Lee or the South.
As its subtitle suggests, one of Michael Korda’s aims in “Clouds of Glory” is “disentangling Lee from his myth.” In this he mostly succeeds. Although Korda greatly admires Lee, he challenges the image of a man who could do no wrong. He also challenges the Lost Cause portrait of the Old South as a bucolic paradise of small farmers and courtly aristocrats, a vision in which, he notes, “the reality of slavery played no part.”
This is good, but Foner goes on to make the case that Korda is still more than a tad too respectful of his subject and even somewhat neglectful of the actual record, and that’s too bad. Lee’s image in the popular imagination needs a thorough debunking.
Since the War ended, Lee has been used to help sell Southerners a flattering view of a war the South started as a defensive war taken on reluctantly to protect hearth, home, family, and, incidentally, “our peculiar way of lahf,” from Northern aggressors. Why, look at Bobby Lee, gentleman soldier, reluctant warrior (as reluctant a warrior as a career military man can be, at any rate), good and decent man, practically the reincarnation of George Washington, neither at heart or in principle a secessionist or a die-hard proponent of the South’s peculiar institution, forced by fate and the blunders of politicians to choose between his nation and his country, Virginia.
We’re not supposed to consider that Lee might have done Virginia more good by sticking with the Union.
This only works, of course, because Lee so looked the part. So handsome. So dignified. So fatherly. That stoically impassive expression not quite hiding the sadness in his eyes. How could a cause that had such an honorable man as its military commander be anything but honorable?
Not only could and did the focus on the image of Lee as a tragic hero take the focus off what he was actually fighting for, it can take the focus off the fact that the South lost, even be used to allow the South to award itself a moral victory.
Yes, we were outmanned and outgunned in the field but still our boys, Bobby Lee’s boys, were the better men.
As William Faulkner wrote in Intruder in the Dust about Lee’s biggest blunder, known gallantly as Pickett’s Charge:
For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is stll time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armstead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago....
“This is my fault. This is all my fault,” Lee said to the remains of Pickett’s division staggering back from Cemetery Ridge.
Yes, it was, General, but the mistake began when you decided to cast your lot with the slavers. Your fellow slavers.
Ironically, Grant’s image has been used to help burnish Lee’s, the contrast between the two portrayed as complementary, two sides of the same wholly American coin. On the one side, the stately, formal, courteous aristocrat of the Old South, defender of a passing glory, on the other, the bumptious, brusque, impatient, practical citizen solider, harbinger of a new Western-looking America in which Billy Yank and Johnny Reb would be united again at last. And there’s that whole brother against brother thing again, sentimentalizing the war and taking the focus off its cause, the South’s real cause.
Lee and Grant weren’t complements. They were opposites. Comparisons should highlight that, not obscure it.
This, by the way, is one of the (many) things I like about the movie Gettysburg, how it subtly takes on the mythic image of Lee.
Martin Sheen’s Lee looks the part, acts the part, has qualities that make him right for the part, but still has a touch of vanity and a suggestion of emotional fragility that makes him suspect in the part. Add Tom Berenger’s Longstreet’s growing doubts and horror and it’s really something of a subversive portrait. Pickett’s Charge becomes emblematic of the Southern Cause—thousands of men sacrificed for the vanity and ambitions of elderly aristocrats.
On the other hand, one of the most stirring moments in Lincoln for me was Jared Harris’ entrance as Grant. The second he appeared I wanted to jump up and point at the screen, yelling, “That’s HIM!”
And the scene between him and Daniel Day Lewis on the porch broke my heart for both men.
Make sure you read all of Scott’s post and stick around for the comments.
Korda has a knack for describing the complex unfolding of Civil War battles in lucid prose. Most of the book consists of gripping, if perhaps excessively lengthy, accounts of Lee’s military campaigns…
If you’re looking for a book by a professional historian featuring lengthy (but I don’t think excessively so), lucidly written, and gripping battle sequences that gives Lee his due as a military leader but that’s it? I recommend Richard Slotkin’s The Long Road to Antietam. Besides not glorifying Lee, it has the additional virtue of showing up Union General George McClellan as the magnificent asshole he was.
And Foner’s own The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery is a must read, must own.
The real fun in this post is in following the links.
To honor Mickey Rooney tonight, do not watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Instead, try The Black Stallion or Carl Reiner’s often overlooked The Comic starring Dick Van Dyke as a Buster-Keaton-esque silent movie star and Rooney delivering a terrific performance as his put upon but always devoted friend and sidekick, Cockeye.
One of my favorites of his performances, though, was on television, in an episode of Naked City called Oofus-Goofus.
Two of his movies I’ve never seen but would really like to are Pulp with Michael Caine and Baby Face Nelson. Yes, he plays that Baby Face Nelson. He plays a bad guy in each. He had a dark side he could call on and did as Scott Foundas details in this post for Variety, Mickey Rooney Appreciation: Noir Films Showed He Was More Than a Teen Star.
And for a good tribute, you can always count on the Siren. Read In Memoriam: Mickey Rooney 1920-2014.
And, ok, I admit it. For me, Rooney’s will always be the voice of Santa Claus.
Yeah, it’s schmaltz. Sing along anyway. You’ll feel better.
“Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!” Whoops. Wrong movie. Wrong movie star…or maybe not.
I’m probably not going to see Sabotage---this is our Muppets Most Wanted weekend---but from what Tony Dayoub says it sounds like I’ll be missing out on a pretty good action-adventure-thriller and an actual acting job by Arnold:
[Director David] Ayer knows that this has been done before, so the only way to keep the viewer in the dark is to distract or divert their attention. He does so with the edgy expertise of a veteran action filmmaker. Chase scenes are shot from a first-person perspective inside the car. Gunfights frequently occur with the camera at either or both ends of the barrel depending on who Ayer wants you to feel has the advantage. At one point, Breacher's visit to one retired teammate is cut in such a way as to fool the viewer that the parallel action between the team leader and his former subordinate are occurring simultaneously when there's a very distinct reason it turns out that it's not. Viewers are enlisted into being part of the action from the get-go, both implicating them as accomplices in the crime and making them perplexed victims of the betrayal committed by one of the once trusted teammates.
Schwarzenegger is rarely called upon to give as complex a performance as the one he gives in Sabotage. Breacher is a man who sacrificed the stability of a regular family for the thrills of this volatile one and has begun to realize it was a horrible exchange. Save for an ill-advised, valedictory coda that comes across as a bit of a western spoof, the movie grants Schwarzenegger the chance to play the role of an action star's lifetime. Breacher may be Schwarzenegger's Rooster Cogburn…
Some day I’ll write a fuller post about a movie star’s Rooster Cogburn role as the last great showy part of his or her career that somehow sums up everything that went into making them a star and then adds a little something to our appreciation of their star power and their talent. Not every actor gets one. Bogart didn’t. Cary Grant didn’t. Henry Fonda’s was in a play, Clarence Darrow. Cary Cooper’s was High Noon, obviously. Spencer Tracy’s was in Inherit the Wind although a case can be made for Bad Day at Black Rock. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was his valedictory and that’s a different thing. Paul Newman’s came a little early with The Verdict. Redford might just have had his in All Is Lost. Wayne actually had two. True Grit and The Shootist.
Hollywood is usually done with its great actresses just before they’re at the point where they’re ready to deliver such a performance. Katharine Hepburn defied the sexist ageists, which is why we have hers in The Lion in Winter. Bette Davis remained a leading lady just long enough to do All About Eve. Helen Mirren’s, The Queen, re-energized and extended her career as a leading lady. Meryl Streep will likely have hers sooner or later, but maybe she already did and if so my vote is Julie & Julia.
At any rate, if Breacher in Sabotage is Schwarzenegger’s, then maybe I’d better re-think and make the time to see it.
However you feel, you should read all of Tony’s review at Cinema Viewfinder.
In Captain Phillips, the Navy Seals aren’t heroes.
They aren’t an awesome team of professional warriors.
The aren’t the embodiment of the might and majesty of the United States.
And they aren’t the cavalry rope-dropping to the rescue.
Nobody looks forward to their arrival. Nobody wants them there, least of all the United States Navy.
They are, simply, Death.
This must be understood going in or you might think you’re watching the wrong sort of movie, a simple true-life adventure at sea, which it is, in addition, or a triumphal celebration of America’s righteous wrath, which it’s definitely not.
Captain Phillips is a tragedy.
And Captain Phillips himself (in the person of Tom Hanks giving one of his greatest performances, his best in a very long time) isn’t the hero of the tragedy. He’s its witness. This is the tragedy of Muse, the chief pirate who, very briefly, takes Phillips’ container ship, the MV Maersk Alabama. Phillips is Starbuck to Muse’s Ahab, Marlowe to his Lord Jim. He’s on hand to watch as the hero magnificently but maddeningly pursues his self-aggrandizing obsession, to reach out on our behalf and try to pull him back, to offer both our sympathy and our censure and our warning, and then to mourn in advance as hubris and then fatalism and despair take hold and the hero embraces his fate.
This plays out beautifully in Captain Phillips but I’m thinking it might be obscured by the casting of Barkhad Abdi, who despite his own remarkable performance, in which he more than holds his own against Hanks, he often takes the screen from him, can’t take hold of our imaginations the way Hanks does by virtue of having become at this point in his career an icon.
Actually, I wonder if audiences might be so impressed by what good work Abdi does in his very first time in front of a camera that they might not notice what good work he’s doing, if you see what I’m saying.
While it was admirable and effective and the right thing for the filmmakers to have cast real Somalis to play Somalis, it might have been better from a pure storytelling point of view to have cast an actor with a more powerful movie star presence as Muse---Idris Alba, David Oyelowo, Chiwetel Ejiofor. Or Omar Sy, whom, if you don’t know who he is, you owe it to yourself to see in The Intouchables.---someone who could take up equal space in our heads with Hanks.
Or they could have gone the other way and cast a star who was less of an icon and more of a character actor as Phillips. Would have made a fitting final bow for Phillip Seymour Hoffman. But then, I suppose, without Hanks, the movie might not have gotten made.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Captain Phillips would have been a better movie with a different Captain Phillips or a different Muse. It’s a very good movie as it is. It’s hard for me to imagine how it could have been better. I’m just trying to call attention to the fact that there’s something else going in Captain Phillips along with its being a gripping tale of a true life adventure on the high seas featuring a tour de force performance by Tom Hanks and I don’t want anyone to miss it.
Captain Phillips is Captain Phillips’ adventure, but it’s Muse’s story and his tragedy. And it’s important to note that within that tragic story the Seals do not appear as the good guys. They barely appear as guys, that is, as human beings, at all. They’re mostly seen as shapes in the dark. They’re an outcome not a solution. They are, as I said, Death.
The closer they get to the scene, the more we dread their arrival. Director Paul Greengrass has us rooting for what we know happened not to happen.
Captain Phillips is the story of a brave, daring, resourceful, and intelligent young man who makes a fateful decision out of anger and vanity and finds himself trapped and forced to take on the role of hero as his only way out---“Look at me….Look at me…I’m the captain now.”---knowing he’s not up to it and more likely than saving him and his crew it will lead to their destruction.
My Lord Jim reference is apt in a number of ways, but here’s one: like Jim, Muse jumps. Unlike Jim, he jumps the other way, onto the ship, impelled by courage and a sense of duty (and ego) instead of fear and an instinct for self-preservation.
In the most thrilling scene in the movie, Muse skippers his small boat through the jets of water from the fire hoses that are the Maersk Alabama’s only defense against pirates and, while both boats are moving at full speed, he and his small band leap onto the ladders they’ve hooked to the larger ship’s side and scramble aboard. It’s as daring and audacious as anything you’d see in a traditional pirate swashbuckler made even more exciting by its being true.
But the reason Muse and his three-man crew are taking such a risk and going it on their own is that Muse is determined to show up a rival pirate with his courage and skill. It’s an act of vainglory and as soon as he makes it, the Seals are on their way and Muse has doomed himself and his men.
“You can’t win,” Phillips says to Muse at one point, trying to persuade him to take the thirty grand in the ship’s safe and go while he still can. “The Navy isn't going to let you win. They would rather sink this boat than let you win.”
What Phillips doesn’t grasp---what he can’t grasp---is that Muse starts from the position of having already lost, of having been born into that loss. There’s no winning for him in his life as it is or as it’s likely to continue to be. That’s why he’s a pirate.
It’s intrinsic to the story and to Muse’s and Phillips’ characters that Phillips, a kind-hearted, intelligent, well-meaning man, can’t get his head around what Muse’s life is like. He can’t imagine a life without options, without at least small wins on a daily basis. He can’t imagine what it’s like not to be an American.
Captain Phillips opens with Phillips at home in his picturesque farmhouse in Vermont as he’s packing up to head off to the airport and fly to Oman to take command of the Maersk Alabama. His wife Andrea (Catherine Keener in a brief but emotionally effective cameo in which her face is almost never shown) goes with him to the airport and on the drive they have a meandering but anxiety-ridden conversation ostensibly about how their kids are doing at school and their uncertain prospects for the future. But what they’re really talking about is their dread of separation. After twenty-odd years of marriage, they still hate it when they have to be apart because of his job and what we’re being told is, despite their worries, the Phillips have a happy marriage and a comfortable and comforting home and family life.
The scene switches to Muse’s village in Somalia, and we see at a glance that he has none of that. He has little to call his own, not even a few hours to himself to catch up on some sleep. What he has is work. On some days that means fishing. Today it means piracy.
Back again to Phillips as he arrives at his work. The Maersk Alabama is essentially a giant floating warehouse. The bridge is as clean, shiny, well-organized, well-staffed, and technologically up to date, not to mention as high up, as an office in midtown Manhattan.
Muse’s office is an open skiff with a balky outboard engine staffed by an unreliable crew of three, a frightened teenager, an easily irritated psychopath, and a competent but not noticeably intelligent mechanic and pilot.
(Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, and Mahat M. Ali.)
Later, when the highjacking is beginning to go awry and Phillips again tries to persuade Muse his best option is to get while the getting is good, Muse says he can’t give up now, he has bosses he has to answer to. Phillips, thinking he’s found a way to establish a sympathetic connection between them, says, “We all got bosses,” and it’s a wonder Muse doesn’t fall on the deck laughing.
Phillips’ bosses don’t arrive for breakfast meetings with teams of guards brandishing automatic weapons in armored SUVs trailed by trucks with mounted machine guns. They give Phillips his instructions by email and not at gunpoint.
Once Greengrass establishes this gap between the two men, he never tries to bridge it. Phillips and Muse never bond. They never even begin to like or respect each other. They don’t even connect through anger or hatred. They each have too much else on their minds that keeps them from truly caring about what the other is thinking and feeling, although Phillips has to pretend that he does in the hope Muse will respond in kind and so will be less inclined to harm Phillips’ crew and the pretending is easy for him because he’s naturally a compassionate man. Muse understands Phillips a little bit better because he understands what it is to be an American better than Phillips does and a lot better than Phillips understands what it is not to be one.
“There has to be more than fishing and kidnapping people,” Phillips insists, thinking he’s making a reasonable point.
“Maybe in America,” Muse replies with the movie’s most heartbreaking line. “Maybe in America.”
But basically they remain mysteries to each other.
Their inability to understand each other and form any sort of emotional bond, though, doesn’t mean there’s no connection between them.
One of my favorite moments comes when after the first attempt to take the Maersk Alabama fails because Muse’s rival gets scared off and Muse’s skiff’s engine stalls, he and Phillips lock gazes through their binoculars and both feel the shock of recognition.
They know each other on a fundamental level as fellow captains. Each recognizes the other as intelligent and competent and therefore formidable. But the real point of sympathy between them is their aloneness, how being in command isolates them.
Greengrass uses his camera to insist upon this. Abdi and Hanks rarely appear in close-ups with other members of the cast or with each other. When they are shown with people around them, it tends to be in long shots that emphasize the spaces between them and those people.
This aloneness is stressful, even frightening for Phillips but it’s a defining fact of his job and he’s learned to deal with it and can deal with it because he knows that when he needs help, it will come.
Part of what’s devastating about the utterly devastating final scenes of the film is Phillips’ realization that that help is not going to come in time.
But for Muse, aloneness is the defining fact of his life.
Whenever the camera isolates him, it shows him thinking. Abdi is excellent at conveying the intensity of Muse’s thinking and how it’s going on on several levels at once. And whatever else he’s thinking, there is always one level on which he’s thinking, How did I wind up in this mess? This mess being not this misadventure but his whole life. I’m too smart for this. I’m too ambitious for this. I’m too good for this. And we recognize that that’s not vanity. It’s honesty. He is smart and ambitious and too good to be a pirate. He is in spirit what he wishes he was in fact, a born American.
He’s exactly the kind of person we want to come here. Which makes for the wrenching irony of his ultimate fate.
It’s wonderful, then, the way Abdi and Hanks are able to interact given the inwardness of both their performances.
As Phillips, Hanks is quiet, self-contained, reined in but not repressed, laconic but not taciturn, dour, or sullen, not humorless or unfeeling but practical above all else, a definite There’s a time and a place sort. Muse, to the extent he understands Phillips, understands him as a typical American. We understand him as a typical New Englander.
I loved it when the British Naval Officer Phillips has contacted by radio to report that he think pirates are after his ship assures him, “Chances are they’re just fisherman” and Hanks submerges all his anger and fear in a sharply but still calmly delivered understatement, “They’re not here to fish.”
That’s a Yankee sea captain talking.
Captain Phillips is thrilling and suspenseful but it’s interesting how after the boarding of the ship and the taking of the bridge, which concludes the first act, there’s almost no more action.
In the second act, suspense builds as we watch and wait for Phillips to figure out how to get the pirates off his ship or for Muse to come to his senses.
In the third act, suspense turns to dread as we hope against hope that things work themselves out before the object of our dread arrives.
That object is, as I’ve been insisting all along, the Seals.
Which is to say, again, Death and the inevitable end of the tragedy.
Speaking of actors taking the screen away from Tom Hanks: He was very good as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, but Emma Thompson was even better as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers. My review: Saving P.L. Travers: Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, and the saving grace of stories.
More on Barkhad Abdi from NPR: How Breakthrough 'Captain Phillips' Actor Connected To The Role
Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass, screenplay by Billy Ray, based on the book A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty. Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, Corey Johnson, Max Martini, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vazquez, David Warshofsky, and Catherine Keener. PG-13. Now on DVD and available to watch instantly at Amazon.