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.
At one point in Saving Mr. Banks, an exasperated Walt Disney, desperately trying to figure out what makes author P.L. Travers tick so he can get an angle on how to finally convince her to sell him the film rights to her novel Mary Poppins, asks her, “Where did Mary Poppins come from?”
And an even more exasperated but also angrily defensive Travers tries to deflect the question. “I don’t know. She just flew in through the window.”
Now, I don’t know if the screenwriters were using the line as an in-joke to show they’d done their homework or if the line was an inspired bit of improvisation by Emma Thompson. But, whichever and however it came to be in there, it’s also a missed opportunity.
Travers is telling the truth but the truth is not that one day she was suddenly and unexpectedly inspired as if Mary Poppins appeared in her imagination whole and in flight with her talking umbrella and bottomless carpetbag.
Mary Poppins flies but she would never be so impertinent or impolite as to come into someone’s house through a window.
She lands primly and properly on the doorstep and knocks.
But someone else flies in through windows, uninvited, and flies out of them too, with enthralled children in tow, leaving his shadow behind.
As a synecdoche for how stories inspire more stories, you can’t do better than Peter Pan.
And one of the themes of Saving Mister Banks is how people use stories to both understand life and to hide from it or at least disguise its true nature.
But as it happens, Peter Pan is the story---one of the stories---behind this story.
Saving Mr. Banks exists as a story to be told because the movie Mary Poppins exists, and Mary Poppins exists because the novel Mary Poppins exists, and Mary Poppins the novel exists because Peter Pan exists.
P.L. Travers, who began her adult career as an actress, was a great admirer of J.M. Barrie and when she sat down to write Mary Poppins she consciously used Barrie’s novelization of his play Peter Pan as one of her models.
Travers wasn’t the only child whose imagination Peter carried off with him to Neverland or the only adult for whom he left behind his shadow.
Walt Disney always said it was a touring company production of Peter Pan he saw as a boy that inspired him to become a storyteller as well as an artist.
In real life, Disney would have recognized Travers’ allusion immediately and he’d have used it to try to make the connection he’s struggling to make in Saving Mr. Banks.
But in the movie, he treats it as merely the deflection she intends and continues to focus on the business at hand.
Disney’s failure to pause and take notice of what she’s just said is a...well, a synecdoche---Don’t often get to use that word even once in a blog post.---for one of the flaws of Saving Mister Banks, a generally enjoyable movie mainly enjoyable for Emma Thompson’s and Tom Hanks’ performances.
Let’s get this out of the way first.
Emma Thompson has been robbed.
She deserved to have been nominated at every venue this Awards Season, including and especially the Oscars.
Meryl Streep? Again? What is there, a California Law that Meryl Streep has to be nominated every year no matter what movie she does? And it wasn't even the actual lead.
And I adore Amy Adams as much as anyone but the only explanation I can come up with for why she was nominated for American Hustle is that after nominating Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, Academy members were worried she’d feel left out and nobody wanted to make Amy Adams cry.
Well, there you have me.
But if Blanchett’s performance in Blue Jasmine was the standard this go-round, then Thompson more than meets it.
As P.L. Travers, Thompson has a task similar to Blanchett’s as Jasmine. She has to carry a whole movie while playing a difficult, often dislikable, and, in a different way than Jasmine but still hard to sympathize with, destructive character. And she has to do it without the same or as many opportunities to act. Jasmine is an alcoholic and prescription drug addict. Travers is addicted to…tea. You just don’t look as dramatic spooning in the sugar as you can popping pills and tossing back a vodka martini.
Plus, Blanchett has help from a large and varied troupe of character actors. Thompson’s small company of supporting players, which includes Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, and Melanie Paxson, do a fine job but that job mainly consists of sitting there looking stunned as Travers alternates between bullying them, insulting them, insulting their beloved boss, and making impossible demands. The difference is the like the difference between a solo and a sonata. Blanchett has more to play off of and play with. Thompson has more scenes that depend on what she can do on her own.
Then there’s the fact Thompson has no lines that were written by Woody Allen.
Don’t get me wrong. Blanchett’s performance was edgier and riskier. Jasmine isn’t only her own worst enemy. She’s the enemy of just about every sympathetic character we meet, to the point she’s practically the villain of the story, and Allen and Blanchett constantly tempt us to turn completely against her.
Saving Mister Banks is always, if not always whole-heartedly, on Travers’. She’s unlikeable and disagreeable and abrasive and only some of that is warranted by her situation. But the movie takes a We All Have Our Faults view and so makes no attempt to punish her for her flaws and foibles. And it doesn’t take the position she should have just accepted that Uncle Walt knew best. She’s not expected to be able to see into the future and know that the movie she’s resisting being made out of her book will be a classic. We’re allowed to be amused when she objects to something that we know will turn out to be a favorite part of Mary Poppins but we’re not for a moment to think her objections are foolish or her suggestions are bad in themselves. We’re even encouraged to think she might have at least half a point as she’s busy trying to sabotage one of the most beloved movies of all time.
Still, it’s a tall order and you don’t have to take my word for it that Thompson carries it off brilliantly. Here’s Meryl Streep presenting one of the awards Thompson was not robbed of, the Best Actress Award from the National Board of Review:
Nobody can swashbuckle a quit-witted riposte like Emma Thompson. She’s a writer, a real writer, and she has a relish for the well-chosen word. But some of the most sublime moments in Saving Mr. Banks are completely wordless. They live in the transitions where P.L. traverses from her public face to her private spaces. I’m talking about her relentlessness when she has her verbal dukes up, and then it moves to the relaxation of her brow when she retreats into the past. It’s her stillness, her attentiveness to her younger self; her perfect aliveness, her girlish alertness.
What I said, about Thompson and the Oscars? Robbed!
Tom Hanks was robbed too. Not for Saving Mr. Banks. For Captain Phillips. Still, he’s very good as Walt Disney. More convincing as Walt Disney than Walt Disney was himself. Hanks plays the character Disney tried to play in his introductory scenes on The Wonderful World of Color. Kindly, genial, avuncular, with a touch of gruffness that lets you know he’s not someone you want mad at you but without the real Disney’s mean streak or will to dominate, an artist who can’t always keep his own creations under control, a Merlin with still a touch of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and that’s how he seems to think of Travers---as one of his own cartoon characters who’s come to life with a mind and will of her own. She baffles him, frustrates him, makes his blood boil, but, fundamentally, she amuses him and makes him a little proud. This mixture of vanity, condescension, paternalism, and solipsism keeps Hanks’ Disney from becoming just the loveable old Uncle Walt Walt tried to pass himself off as and helps keep us on Travers’ side. No matter how wrong she might ultimately be about how to make her book into a good movie, she’s right to resist being turned into a Walt Disney character along with her Mary Poppins.
Saving Mr. Banks is a slight film. You could argue it’s a dishonest film. I know you can because I’ve seen people do it. It’s dishonest not in the usual Hollywood way of leaving out facts or altering them or making things up to suit the needs of the plot, although of course it does that. But Hollywood and its audience long ago came to an understanding about that sort of dishonesty.
If you want to make the case Saving Mr. Banks is dishonest, its dishonesty is in its refusal to take its two main characters seriously, either as artists or as difficult, complicated, and problematic personalities. The movie presents it as a settled question that both Travers and Disney were genius storytellers, with Disney being the greater genius, of course, or at least the broader-thinking one. And the serious defects in each of their characters are glossed over or treated like harmless eccentricities.
By 1962, when the movie takes place, Walt Disney hadn’t been an artist in his own right in years. He had ceased to be a great entertainer or even a showman. He was a salesman selling Disney-ness, not as a brand, but as a way of life, almost as a place to live, with the theme parks being model neighborhoods.
But the possibility that Disney was a showboating fraud and a ruthless corporatist who made his name and his dough exploiting true artists like Travers, either because that’s what he’d become or that’s what he’d always been, is never considered.
And, as I said, Hanks leaves out his mean streak. And left out of the script is his appalling sexism. Meryl Streep again:
When I saw the film, I could just imagine Walt Disney’s chagrin at having to cultivate P.L. Travers’ favor for 20 years that it took to secure the rights to her work. It must have killed him to encounter, in a woman, an equally disdainful and superior creature, a person dismissive of his own, considerable gifts and prodigious output and imagination.
Streep could imagine it, but the movie doesn’t, not really. In the few moments when Disney's sexism is allowed to surface, it’s presented comically, as the understandable bafflement of a typical man of his time having to deal with an individual who refuses to conform to his idea of how a typical woman of the time should behave. And he’s immediately set straight by his executive secretary. In this, Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t just reflect the times. It’s practically an apology for them.
On the other side, the fact that the real Pamela Travers could be a ruthless go-getter in her own right who exploited and abused others as she needed on her way to a level of success and personal happiness that always eluded her is also never considered. Neither is the possibility that she was a posturing mediocrity, a poetaster (and poet-chaser) who’d luckily hit on a late-blooming career as a children’s author by shamelessly mimicking the works of her literary idols.
The opposite isn’t there either. Travers isn’t set up as a champion of artistic integrity (as opposed to a defender of her own artistic creation) opposing a one-time fellow genius who could no longer distinguish between a work of art and a commodity.
Travers doesn’t like what Disney sells and she’s sharply critical of what about it she doesn’t like but she offers no real critique of it, either in what she says or what she does. She is not, as Streep would like to imagine, the least bit “dismissive of his considerable gifts.” And for his part, Disney is certain of Travers’ talent because his daughter loved Mary Poppins when she was little and the judgment of children is always pure and never wrong.
Neither one doubts or questions his self or herself as an artists. Neither doubts or questions the other.
In short, they don’t talk about Peter Pan.
They don’t discuss or even bring up how it inspired both of them but in very different ways to very different purposes.
At any rate, you could make the case that in leaving all that out or in giving it short shrift, Saving Mr. Banks is a dishonest movie if it was a movie for grown-ups or just for grown-ups.
Saving Mr. Banks is a movie for children who love the movie Mary Poppins and for those children’s parents and grandparents who loved Mary Poppins when they were children themselves and as such it’s not meant to be realistic.
It’s meant to be something of a fairy tale, like Mary Poppins, Disney’s movie and Travers’ novel.
Saving Mister Banks is a just-so story about stories and about how stories come into being or, in this case, how a story almost didn’t come into being.
Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t have a full-time narrator, but it opens with a short bit of narration spoken by a voice we'll come to recognize as that of Travers' wistful, romantic, and soul-tortured father.
Winds in the east / Mist coming in / Like something is brewing / About to begin / Can't put me finger / On what lies in store / But I feel what's to happen / All happened before.
Which happens to be a variation on the opening lines of both Disney's Mary Poppins and Peter Pan.
Behind every story is another story, a true story. And behind that story is another story. Sometimes the hidden story is a funny one about grownups behaving like children, like the story you’re watching now. And sometimes the story is a sad one about grownups and children who are unhappy and in pain, like the story behind this story, which, as it happens, thanks to the magic of movies, you’re also watching at the same time.
That other, sad story is the story of Travers’ less than happy childhood in Australia where she lived an emotionally and financially precarious life with her younger sisters and their alcoholic but charismatic and doting father (Colin Farrell) and their emotionally fragile mother (Ruth Wilson) who probably would have had a hard time coping even if her husband had been more reliable and their life more stable.
But despite her father’s inability to make himself reliable or provide that needed stability, he is still a hero to his eldest daughter and he passes along two great gifts.
A faith in the power of stories to make life bearable and beautiful and a confidence in her own abilities as a storyteller.
The problem that past creates in the present, that is the complication that sad story causes in the plot of the comic story Saving Mr. Banks is telling is that Travers has come to see all her stories, including and especially Mary Poppins, as bound up in her very mixed feelings about her father. Basically, she can separate her story from his story and, as Saving Mr. Banks has Walt Disney intuit, she can’t let go of Mary Poppins the way he needs her to in order to make his movie (tell the story he wants to tell) because in her mind Mary Poppins is her father’s story and in letting go she’d be betraying him.
And as soon as Disney realizes this, he hits on the solution.
The still floundering and exasperated Disney tells the still angry and defensive Travers a story. The story of his childhood and his relationship with his father. I should say a story. An alternative story. It’s a true story but it’s not the story because it’s not the story Disney has chosen to be the story of his life. He could have made that story a story about being cold and alone and put-upon and exploited and neglected. He could have made his father the villain of his life. Instead, he calls his father “a good man.”
Any armchair psychologists want to speculate on what the young Walt would have made of the fact that the actor playing Mr Darling also played Captain Hook?
Same thing a lot of children make of it, I’d wager.
Now of course Walt Disney would have had more reason than most people to think his life worked out ok not just in spite of what he had to endure as a kid but because of it. But his point is that the story of a person’s life is the story as she tells it to herself. Travers, he’s implying, is letting the story tell her. She sees it as a story about how she failed her father. And because of that, she sees her own novel as a compensatory fantasy. That’s why she’s so defensive of it. It’s her defense against guilt and self-loathing. It’s not working that way. But it’s all she’s got. She thinks. Disney figures out that she’s stalled, as an artist and as soul. She’s not frigid, as at one point another character accuses her of being. She’s frozen in place. And Disney blames it on her getting her own story wrong. It’s not the story of her father’s and her own failures. It is, in his view, the story of her success.
Well, he would.
But his point is that that story, that success, is Travers’ creation of Mary Poppins. “Finish the story,” he urges. And the finish is that she gives Mary Poppins to the whole world by selling him the film rights.
Well, he’d see it that way too.
At any rate, that’s what I liked about Saving Mr. Banks. Here’s what Emma Thompson herself liked about it (This is from her speech accepting the award Streep presented.):
I’d like to thank Kelly Marcel for writing someone so relentlessly unpleasant. Actually, it was an artistic chance to let out my real and true inner self. It was such bliss torturing all those young men, and I include Hanks, obviously, in that category. He’s always looked like he needed a good smack.
And Alison Owen, who produced a film about a 60-year-old woman which wasn’t about her being a wife or a mother. When does that happen? Never. Extraordinary.
And, of course, John Lee Hancock, who corralled a group of actors who would literally sell their internal organs to get the laugh. We would do anything to get a laugh, and he managed to make us look quite poignant in the end, which was extraordinary, I thought.
The end, but one more thing before they all lived happily ever after, which they didn’t and the movie, to its credit, doesn’t try to make us believe they did.
I still wish upon a star that more had been made of the Peter Pan allusion.
I wouldn’t have wanted to listen to two hours of Walt Disney and P.L. Travers arguing about art, the nature and uses of storytelling, and the corrupting influence of the Almighty Dollar.
That might have made an interesting two-character play, although not necessarily a more true to life story.
But a couple of lines that would have let Thompson and Hanks play the moment would have done the trick.
It would have been fun and funny to see the shock of recognition on both their faces.
Saving Mr. Banks isn't exactly the cinematic equivalent of the best creative non-fiction, but from reading Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P.L. Travers by Valerie Lawson, I was pleased to learn it's a lot more true to the facts than carping commentary on the internet led me to expect. Here's an interview Lawson did with the Chicago Tribune.
And from Smithsonian.com: How Did P.L. Travers, the Prickly Author of Mary Poppins, Really Fare Against Walt Disney?: Historian Amy Henderson searches for the spoonfuls of sugar-coated truth in the new film, "Saving Mr. Banks".
Saving Mr. Banks, directed by John Lee Hancock, written by Kelly Marshall and Sue Smith. Starring Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Bradley Whitford, Ruth Wilson, Annie Rose Buckley, and Melanie Paxson. Rated PG-13. Still in some theaters but coming to DVD and available to watch instantly at Amazon on March 18.
I thought Ellen did a fine job. Kept it light, kept it relaxed. Didn't try too hard. Let the jokes sell themselves.
She remembered her real audience wasn't the stars and bigwigs in the hall but people watching on TV.
She played to the camera not the room. Movie stars and comedians are trained to pretend the camera isn’t there. Ellen didn’t just look at the camera. She looked into it. She looked at us.
Then she made the stars look at us too.
That was the brilliance behind the selfie.
She had them breaking the fourth wall in an unironic way.
She got the stars involved without making them have to clown it up. They looked human but still kept their movie star dignity. That was the point of the pizza bit. It was a natural follow-up to the selfie. There was no payoff because there was no joke. It wasn’t a bit. It was an exercise. Instead of leaving them to go back to just sitting there as isolated objects of desire and envy to be gawked at by us, Ellen had them up and moving around and mingling with each other and by extension at that point with us. She’d brought us into the room.
It was a Carson-level job of hosting but she did it on her own terms and in her own style. It wasn’t incidental to his hosting of the Oscars that Johnny Carson was the greatest talk show host ever. Ellen made the Oscars a special episode of her talk show.
The Glinda costume might have been a bit much.
And I still want to know if the pizza delivery guy got his tip.
But the main thing she did right---and I loved the guy to death the first couple times he hosted---was pretend Billy Crystal never existed.
Adapted from my Twitter feed, very early Monday morning, March 3, 2014.
Had a shocking realization during the Academy Awards last night that's going to ruin a lot of movies for me from here on out.
If Mrs M and I had a daughter, she'd look like Jennifer Lawrence.
She could be Oliver and Ken Mannion's sister.
So from now on whenever I see her in a movie, instead of thinking what a great actress she is, I'll be thinking:
"Watch your mouth, young lady!"
"Stop that, right now!"
"Put some clothes on!"
Or, worse, I won't actually be thinking these things, I'll be thinking I should be thinking these things, if you know what I mean.
The gremlins that have taken up apparently permanent residence in our plumbing kept me busy all weekend so I wasn't able to follow through with my ambitions for pre-Oscar blogging. Not that you lose much by that, except one or two of my planned posts might have given you something to while away the time during an interminable acceptance speech or another inexplicable appearance by Cirque de Soliel. But don't worry. I still got you covered.
Every year the question gets kicked around Is the Best Picture winner ever really the best picture? I think the consensus is it never is. Some are less Best than others though and this leads to lists along the lines of Best Best Picture Winners of the Past and Worst Best Picture Winners of the Past. At BuzzFeed, Kate Arthur has done it a little differently and ranked all 85 Best Picture Winners so far against each other.
Her best Best Picture is All About Eve.
Her least best, which is to say the movie she thinks is the worst Best Picture of all time?
This riled up the Self-Styled Siren who has come to Gigi's defense.
Meanwhile, Tony Dayoub has been trying to catch up with all the past Best Winners he's never seen. He was posting his thoughts as he went along on Facebook, but now he's collected them all on his blog, Cinema Viewfinder.
As for this year's Best Picture nominees? Well, as I've said, I haven't seen most of them. I don't have a strong rooting interest in any of the three I have seen, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, and American Hustle. I didn't like American Hustle anywhere near as much as a lot of people. I'm with Oliver Mannion who likes to quote the Honest Movie Poster he saw at College Humor, "It was...good?" The other two I thought were fine but from what I've heard 12 Years A Slave is way finer. Of the others I haven't seen yet, it doesn't seem like there's one I'd really hate to see win, except maybe The Wolf of Wall Street. But I'll never know because it's almost certainly not going to win and I'm almost certainly not going to see it even if it does.
Just doesn't interest me.
I think Leo's likely much better movie this year was The Great Gatsby.
You may remember Roy Edroso liked it and he had me about persuaded I should see it. But Tom Watson did not like it. No, siree. Not one little bit. And he explains why in his first ever article fo Ms Magazine.
The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t really about money or greed or the broken American financial system.
It’s about gender.
Martin Scorsese used the convenient cover of the public distrust of Wall Street institutions to sneakily deliver a lowbrow bacchanal that doesn’t rise to the level of Caligula, the 1979 film it clearly sought to emulate. Yet, Tinto Brass produced better social commentary. Worse, Bob Guccione had more respect for women. And Caligula had better acting.
The relentless, endless, repetitive, underlying message of Scorcese’s Wolf is simple and brutal: women are commodities to be bought and sold.
Don't hold back, Tom. Tell us what you really think.
Or you tell him and me after you read the whole article, Is a Vote for Leo's "Wolf" a Vote for Sexism?
The Monuments Men looks and feels like George Clooney’s homage to the hokier war movies he and I and everybody else our age watched as kids on TV. Battle of the Bulge. Kelly’s Heroes. Darby’s Rangers. Fireball Forward. The Bridge at Remagen.
Come on. Kelly’s Heroes is hokey. I’m sorry, I love it, but it is. One of its saving virtues is it knows it’s hokey. That’s what Donald Sutherland is doing in there.
Hokeyness is not necessarily a bad thing.
The story director, star, and co-writer Clooney tells in The Monuments Men is intrinsically hokey. Almost all movies about World War II told from the Allies’ point of view are---Good guys versus really, really bad bad guys. Good guys win---as long as you ignore inconvenient truths about some of the things the good guys did to win, like Dresden, which The Monuments Men very peculiarly does. You’d think it would have to come up in a story about saving the great artistic and cultural treasures of Europe from theft and destruction that, for no military reason, we incinerated a city that was essentially in itself a work of art.
Can’t put the whole war in one movie, but that’s a strange omission, considering. Maybe Clooney thought it would throw things off tonally if along with those other movies he had the audience thinking of Slaughterhouse Five.
Those other war movies are definitely referenced, visually, thematically, dramatically, musically. It’s a good way to keep the War in the backs of our minds in a war movie about soldiers who saw very little combat. The Monuments Men tended to get to the scene after the fighting or, now and then, have to get in and out ahead of it. It’s an alternative to resorting to news reel footage. We don’t need to see the battles if we can imagine them and know Telly Savalas is nursing his broken down Sherman into place to relieve Bastogne and drive back Robert Shaw’s Panzers and George Segal is up ahead leading his exhausted platoon in a last ditch charge to chase the Germans off the bridge.
Maybe that’s just me.
At any rate, it’s a good way acknowledging the movie’s hokeyness and half-apologizing for it and also of excusing its fictions. The story is true in that the Monuments Men actually existed, although not as the single, cohesive unit the movie centers around, they really did hunt the stolen and threatened works of art shown and find them in the places the movie shows them finding them in, and incidents like the ones portrayed did happen along the way, just none of it happened to these characters because they’re all made-up. Some are composites, some are wholly invented. But, says Clooney, with his allusions and quotes, we’re working within a tradition here.
Of the movies I mentioned, the This All Really Happened Just Not Exactly in the Way We’re Showing It and Not These Characters aspect of The Monuments Men reminded me most of The Bridge at Remagen, the grittiest and least hokey of the bunch, probably because it’s the one most aware of itself as a war movie, that is as a movie about human beings, good and bad, being forced to make unforgiveable choices and do unspeakable things to one another.
They’re structurally similar and they share a similar flaw that could have been fixed with a slightly bigger budget allowing the casting of a few more stars or familiar character actors who could have relieved the rest of the cast from having to double and even triple duty in scenes in which their characters realistically don’t belong.
In both movies, the plot doesn’t really kick in until at least halfway in. The first part of each are alternately expositional and episodic with each short episode the equivalent of an anecdote that’s part of the of the history behind the plot but doesn’t advance the plot or warrant developing into a subplot of its own.
The result in Remagen, a good movie, by the way, is the main characters undergo some jarring personality changes not entirely explained away by the characters’ being mentally and physically exhausted.
Clooney keeps his characters consistently themselves throughout The Monuments Men, but the movie’s episodic nature still results in a stuttering in the pacing.
Many of the episodes are entertaining and dramatic as stand-alones---an accidental confrontation with a scared and desperate young German soldier that’s defused by cigarettes and the invocation of John Wayne, an emergency visit to a dentist that leads to the recovery of a stolen collection of post-Impressionist masterpieces, among others.
But they interrupt the flow of the main story while having no flow of their own and there’s no character development to offset the lack of narrative drive with an emotional dynamic. We already know the characters as well as we’re going to and the familiarity of the actors playing them makes them seem even more familiar. The effect is like listening to your favorite uncle telling war stories with his buddies at the bar at the VFW. They’re good stories, told well, but you feel like you’ve heard them before.
Maybe Clooney’s models shouldn’t have been those war movies or not just those movies.
Oliver Mannion, who liked the movie “ok”, thinks the story would have been better told as a TV mini-series, like Band of Brothers or From the Earth to the Moon (Neither of which Oliver and his brother have seen. I’ve got to fix that.) with some cross-over character and plotlines and George Clooney’s character connecting each episode to a whole, overarching narrative but with each episode telling a full and complete story of its own.
So, for example, you’d have had:
An opening episode told from the German and French and Italian points of view laying out the Nazis’ schemes and local efforts to thwart them. An episode introducing the Monuments Men and outlining their mission and including their training and recruitment. An episode focused on an undercover Monuments Man in Paris before its liberation trying to convince a wary member of the Resistance who doesn’t trust the Americans not to steal the art the Nazis stole for themselves to show him the list she has of where the Nazis shipped hundreds of paintings and sculptures. An episode devoted to a disgraced and self-loathing Monuments Man who redeems himself trying to save Michalangelo’s Madonna. You get the idea.
All of these stories are told but with significant abbreviation in The Monuments Men.
But I’m thinking another way to have gone would have been to give up on a narrative thread and let the episodes build on each other to create a pattern that once discerned would tell the story.
The model to follow would have been Paris Je t’aime and The Monuments Men could have been an anthology of mini-movies each with its own tone, story arc, cast of characters, and stars.
Along with Oliver, I liked The Monuments Men “ok” too. It’s hokey but it’s hokeyness lies in the uplift that comes from knowing that in the midst of the most horrific and systematic on civilization---on the very idea of civilization---there were people willing to die to save a statue both for the sake of its own beauty and for the culture that had cherished it for over four hundred years.
Of course I don’t really know if Clooney was consciously borrowing from those old war movies. Movies set in Europe during World War II are going to look like each other in that they’re all going to look like Europe during World War II. The shot of Remagen Bridge that looks like a direct quote from The Bridge at Remagen may have been based on the same historical photos the production designers for The Bridge at Remagen worked from. The historical drama I wish Clooney had made more use of as a model is his own more tautly-directed, more tightly-scripted, more suspenseful Good Night, and Good Luck. That movie was also basically structurally episodic but the episodes were woven into each other in a way Clooney doesn’t manage in The Monuments Men.
But then Good Night, and Good Luck also had the compelling figure of Edward R. Murrow and David Strathairn’s brilliantly saturnine portrayal of Murrow at the heart of it. There’s no Murrow-figure or Strathairn-level of acting in The Monuments Men.
As the leader of the Monuments Men, Frank Stokes (based---loosely based, Wikipedia warns---George Stout, the head of the art conservation department of Harvard’s Fogg Museum of Art at the time), Clooney brings heart and warmth and a persuasive intelligence and air of leadership to the part, but history itself works against his being as powerful and narrative-driving a presence as Strathairn’s Murrow.
Another difference is that in Good Night, and Good Luck Clooney didn’t seem to feel the need to prove his story’s historical significance. Here, he doesn’t trust us to grasp the importance of the Monuments Men’s mission and accept that saving these works of art was worth the risk and price in blood. He takes every chance he gets to push that point home and one of the ways he does it is to have Stokes deliver little lectures on the subject every chance he gets. This is after the movie opens with a full-fledged lecture by Stokes, standing in front of a projected map of the European theatre, in which he outlines the progress of the war to Franklin Roosevelt as if the (by the way map-obsessed) President might not have been paying attention to what his armies were up to.
The risible implausibility (and impertinency) is made more ridiculous by the actor playing Roosevelt doing a rotten impersonation. This is inexcusable under any circumstances but especially so when Clooney already had a pretty good FDR impersonator on hand. Pretty good as in he might have been nominated for an Academy Award last year if Daniel Day-Lewis hadn't set the bar impossibly high for anyone else playing a dead President.
I understand why he didn’t, but I think it would have been a kick if he’d let Bill Murray, shown only from the back, sit there with his cigarette holder and quiz Stokes with questions Murray would have made clear with his properly wry tone the President knows the answers to better than Stokes does himself.
But speaking of Murray...
He and Bob Balaban, as Sergeant Richard Campbell and Private Preston Savitz (the ranks are important. The characters are based on real life Monuments Men Robert Posey, an architect, and Lincoln Kirstein, a writer and art connoisseur who was an early American patron of George Balanchine and co-founded what became the New York City Ballet) blend likeably as comedy team playing off Balaban’s fussiness and little man’s defensive vanity and Murray’s infinite capacity for amused and affection tolerance for other people’s insanity, a quality he first revealed as Todd the Nerd on Saturday Night Live and made the most of in his portrayal of FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson.
John Goodman as sculptor Walter Garfield (based on Walker Hancock who, among other works, designed the Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial whose Angel of Resurrection I hold dear to my heart for always being there to greet me when I arrived at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station on a visit to the blonde at the Blonde Family Manse back in the days of our youth) doesn’t have as much to do and most of what he does riffs on the incongruousness of John Goodman as a G.I. Joe.
His funniest moment comes when Garfield learns the D.I.s have been firing live rounds over his head in Basic Training. His best moment is when the camera finds him sitting silent and still in the back of a truck with a dead comrade cradled in his arms, the unwitting and heartbroken model for his future Angel.
Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville seem to have been brought in mainly to remind us Americans we didn’t win the war on our own.
Dmitri Leonidis makes a quiet but profound impression as, apparently, the one young man in the United States Army. Murray, Balaban, and Goodman are all at least twenty years older than their real-life counterparts were at the time, but the whole supporting cast skews older, an odd thing considering that the War, as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us, was a mainly a children’s crusade.
Clooney, though, is just about the right age to play his part, and admirably he lets himself look his age. And as Stokes/Stout, Clooney demonstrates a key to his appeal that I think gets overlooked because he manages it so naturally, his ability to be an Everyman despite his incredible movie star handsomeness. He can play a museum director with a Ph.D., an astronaut, a corrupt politician, a fishing boat captain, a bank robber, or an overwhelmed dad dealing with a pair of out of control daughters, all of whom just happen to look and sound George Clooney.
Matt Damon is an Everyman too but of a different sort. Since he’s more ordinarily good-looking than Clooney---these things are relative---he can be as self-deprecating without to employ as much irony. As James Granger (based on James Rorimer, who after the war became the first director of the Cloisters and then director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a whole), Damon plays the closet character The Monuments Men has to a hero, though, of course, being a self-deprecating sort, he doesn’t see himself as one. He gets to go undercover behind enemy lines, meet up with the French Resistance, sneak into Paris, and romance Cate Blanchett, a damned dirty job, but somebody has to do it.
Meanwhile, Blanchett does that thing she does, making us distrust our own impulse to like and sympathize with her. It’s that note of neurotic self-doubt bordering on self-loathing. As Claire Simone, the wary Resistance member who kept track of all that stolen art (based on Rose Valland who really deserves a movie of her own) and who the movie has it is suspected of being a collaborator as thanks for her efforts, she almost seems to suspect herself of being one too. What she wants from Granger, more than she wants his promise that he’ll make sure any artworks he recovers will be returned to their rightful owners, is absolution, as if what she’s done is the opposite of noble and heroic. Of course what she really wants to be forgiven for is not having died in the war. Claire is suffering from a very attractive (to Granger) case of survivor’s guilt.
Although they don’t have any scenes together, Clooney’s reuniting with Blanchett in a movie set in the rubble of World War II brings to mind another, more recent war movie Clooney might rather we forget.
In Steven Soderbergh’s dreary and enervated The Good German, Blanchett and Clooney each gave one of their most unappealing performances. I don’t mean they played unappealing characters, although they did. I mean that neither found a way to bring life to parts Soderbergh seemed determined to treat as part of the rubblized Berlin surrounding them, cold, gray, broken, and almost impossible to imagine as restorable or, basically, as good walking dead. The only energy, fun, and sex appeal in The Good German was brought in by Tobey Maguire clearly having a ball getting away from playing the goody-goody and conscience-oppressed Peter Parker.
Fun as it is to see Murray and Balaban and Goodman at work, they’re old men now, and while many of the real Monuments Men were too old to have been drafted, most of them weren’t too old to serve---Clooney’s, Damon’s, Murray’s, and Balaban’s real-life counterparts were already in uniform when the Monuments Men were formally assembled and the mission got underway in 1943.---and the energy could have used the energy of more stars in their primes like Maguire.
Much as I enjoyed Balaban in the part, I think I might have been more engaged by watching Maguire, playing off a more age-appropriate partner, as the effete little ballet guy who becomes the most gung-ho member of the team.
Balaban gets a laugh when he says, “So, we get to shoot some Nazis?” the joke being that the little ballet guy thinks of himself as a killer. Maguire might not have gotten the same laugh, but he’d given us more of a thrill, and a chill, since Spider-Man can kill as many Nazis as Captain America if he wants to.
In other words, with more members of the cast who looked like they really could have fought in the War, Clooney might not have needed as many old movie references to remind us there was actually a war on.
The…um…maturity of his supporting cast makes me wonder if Clooney might have had another favorite movie from our TV watching kidhood in the 70s in mind along with those war movies. A Western.
That would mean Clooney’s starting to see himself as Walter Brennan.
He’s self-deprecating. But he can’t be that self-deprecating.
At Smithsonian.com: The True Story of the Monuments Men by Jim Morrison. Includes a great interactive map.
Mannion on the Clooney beat: My review of The Ides of March, Watching Souls Curdle.
And speaking of Bill Murray again: My review of Hyde Park on Hudson, Bill Murray's Broad Shoulders.
The Monuments Men, directed by George Clooney, screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, based on the book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Brett Witter. Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville, and Dmitri Leonidis. Rated PG-13. 118 minutes. Now in theaters.
…and I’m just not ready.
I’ve only seen three of the Best Picture nominees. American Hustle. Dallas Buyer’s Club. And Captain Phillips.
Gravity I deliberately avoided because 1. there’s no IMAX nearby and it seemed that was one movie that really needed to be seen that way, and 2. it would have scared the willies out of me.
Nightmares for weeks.
I also gave The Wolf of Wall Street the skip because…
Well, just because.
The others---Philomena, Her, Nebraska, and even 12 Years a Slave---came and went at the local art house one right after the other so fast it seemed they were all shown in the same week.
The upside for you regular readers is that this means I don’t have a bunch of second-run reviews to re-post or excerpt in the lead up to the Oscars Sunday night.
What I’m going to do instead is post all-new reviews of movies I’ve over the last few months but for one reason or another haven’t yet typed up my notes on. These will include Dallas Buyer’s Club and Captain Phillips but also The Great Gatsby, which is going to be a doozy of a post, full of art and literature and pseudo-intellectualizing of all sorts, and, the one I’ll be starting with, The Monuments Men, which I enjoyed but probably wouldn’t be on anybody’s Oscar list even if it had come out in time for consideration this awards season.
The fun gets underway tomorrow morning, bright and early.
This morning, bright and early, I’m off to Syracuse to talk movies and fairy tales with my students.
Same difference, right?
Meanwhile, here’s one of the best things I’ve read on this season’s crop of nominees, The Oscars’ Addiction to Lame Historical Dramas, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has mapped out an admirable post-basketball career as an activist, writer, filmmaker, and public intellectual. His choice for Best Picture? Philomena.
Also, the In Memorium segment of the Oscars ought to be livelier and less maudlin than the producers make it, if only because the people being remembered devoted their working lives to one of the most heartening and cheering endeavors going. This year the tributes to Shirley Temple and Sid Caesar alone should be lots of fun, but add to that there's now Harold Ramis to be remembered. If only Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray would take the stage to lead the crowd in singing the Ghostbusters theme...Ah well. There are many good pieces about Ramis online and here's one I really liked, by Mary Elizabeth Williams writing at Salon, Why Harold Ramis "Groundhog Day" is a perfect guide to life.
To gear up for their next big writing assignment, my students in Media Criticism for a Wired Age had to find and post the links to two movie reviews they particularly liked as pieces of writing that just happens to be about a movie and not because they seconded their own opinions about movies they liked or hated. They followed instructions (mostly) and came through with an impressive array of reviews on an interesting selection of movies.
I also asked them to include a sentence or two about what they thought was particularly well-done in the review. Being honor students, they couldn’t limit themselves. They just had to do more than the assignment called for. The result is that their comments on their links alone are worth the price of admission, popcorn, and a large soda. Please check it out our Facebook group page, Wired Critics.
And feel free to join the group and join the discussion as some of your fellow Mannionvillians like Ken Houghton, Janelle Dvorak, and Chris Galdieri already have, bless their virtual hearts.