main: October 2007 Archives
Lately the New York Times Arts & Leisure section has become increasingly mindless, with too much space devoted to celebrity chatter and reviews by critics who type faster than they think. It's a relief, therefore, to read A. O. Scott's lucid article about the current crop of Iraq / Afghanistan / Global War on Terror flicks. When surrounded by mud, clear water can seem a miracle.
Tired of having your circuits overloaded by CSI? Longing for the kind of thrills that come not from guys crawling along the floor in front of a blue screen (to be filled in later by computer) but from gutsy stunt men doing actual stunts?
If so, then get yourself a copy of Runaway Train. This gritty 1985 film was written by a fascinating crew, from Ed Bunker, the former San Quentin inmate turned director (Straight Time, The Longest Yard) to the renowned Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Not only that, but it stars Jon Voigt, Eric Roberts, and Rebecca de Mornay; and was directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, a member of the Russian film aristocracy.
This one-of-a-kind gem starts with a hard-ass escape from a maximum security prison in Alaska, and is not appealing at first (due to what used to be graphic violence and an unpleasant trip through a sewer). But mercifully, it soon plunges the two anti-heroes, escaped prisoners Manny (Voigt) and Bunk (Roberts), into the vast, frozen wilderness, where they hop what turns out to be the wrong train.
Before long they are hurtling across the frozen landscape, sans conductor and sans brakes, and their reactions are not pretty, Manny being the hardest of the hard and Bunk the callowest of the callow. But when they discover they are not alone, that their onrushing fate is shared by a young female assistant engineer (de Mornay), the story lifts off and soars to a whole different level.
To repeat, what you see on the screen is a real train (four engines coupled together) hurtling through some real bleak, real Arctic, real estate. And the interaction among the unwilling passengers, torn between wanting to live and wanting to stay free, is even more real. Pay attention to what happens at the end, because this is not a trivial action flick but something more akin to a short story by Tolstoy. Needless to say, they don't make 'em like that any more.
Believe it or not, there is still a film censorship - oops, "classification" - board in Great Britain. But to judge by its recent decision on Eastern Promises, another foul blood feast from David Cronenberg, the British Board of Film Classification might as well hang it up.
The film sounds like standard Cronenberg: eyes gouged out, throats slashed, all in such loving detail that the film managed to offend even the jaded audience at the London Film Festival. Yet the BBFC awarded the film an 18 certificate for general release, with no cuts - oops, edits.
This prompted Andreas Whittam, a former president of the BBFC, to complain: "If I thought this was the type of film that was likely to make people leave the cinema, or even make them have to look away for quite a while, then I would question why the scene should be left in."
Pretty mealy-mouthed, but a bold statement of principle, compared with the response from the current BBFC: "Scenes that make people turn away are part of the fun of going to movies. These days we are not here to cut; we are here to provide information and let people then make up their minds."
Uh-huh. Just one question, though: What, exactly, are we making up our minds about?
A friend recently posted this fascinating essay on Amazon.com. It's about the literary work that was the basis for one of the finest Hollywood films ever made: The Best Years of Our Lives, about three servicemen returning from World War II. I had no idea that the screenplay was adapted from an epic poem -- did you?
Read Don Bishop's account ...
Spare yourself Elizabeth: The Golden Age , especially if you were bored by last year's Marie Antoinette, an over-produced, under-cooked souffle starring Kirsten Dunst - or rather, starring Kirsten Dunst's costumes, wigs, and makeup. Both films are luscious to look at but so devoid of content, they insult the intelligence of all women. Can you imagine a film about a king, any king, which focuses entirely on his clothes and pleasures to the exclusion of everything else? Maybe there's been one or two, but I doubt they were praised for "empowering" men.
If you want to see Queen Elizabeth in her maturity, wearing fantastic outfits and ruling, as opposed to being ruled by, her hot passionate heart while also ruling England better than almost any monarch ever ruled a country, then rent Elizabeth I, the brilliant and wonderful series starring Helen Mirren that aired on HBO last April.
I could elaborate, but better to offer two links, one to a review I did of Elizabeth I at the time; and the other to a long piece that discusses both Mirren's triumph as Elizabeth II (The Queen) and Marie Antoinette.
Recently re-watched The Usual Suspects, and while it has long been a favorite of mine, this was the first time I noticed its distinct Hong Kong flavor. Couldn't find anything online about its being a remake of a Hong Kong film, so I emailed my favorite Hong Kong cinema expert, who wrote back no, it's not a remake. But my expert agreed that the style was very Hong Kong.
I understand that bad movies come from Hong Kong, just as they do from Hollywood. But when it comes to the forensic crime genre, the world could do with a lot more of their style and a lot less of what passes for ours.
What's better about The Usual Suspects? 1) It has the right number of overlapping layers of deception and intrigue: not too many, not too few; 2) The characters are more interesting than the explosions; 3) The whole thing, including the production design, fits together like a fine Swiss watch; and 4) It's not totally about the blood.
Hong Kong movies can be quite violent, but perhaps because of the legacy of martial arts geniuses like Jackie Chan, the emphasis is on action, not hemo-technical displays like those spewing from Hollywood these days. There are too many morally stunted special effects guys out there, trying to win kudos from mentally stunted "critics" full of pseudo-aesthetic excuses. Don't remind me that the blood is fake. I know that, and so do most viewers. But the invitation to cruelty and voyeuristic pleasure at the agonized suffering of others -- are they fake, too?
As the days grow shorter and the nights colder, you could curl up with a good fat book, like Charles Dickens's Bleak House. The Bantam Classic version is only 818 pages. Or you could rent the 2005 TV adaptation co-produced by the BBC, WGBH Boston, and a company called Deep Indigo. It's only six hours or so, and after the first, you will be hooked.
Full confession: before this Bleak House, I had never seen a Dickens adaptation that I truly admired. They were all too shallow and predictable, with too many tiresome caricatures who weren't really funny. Plus a treacly, Merrie Olde England look that works better in Thomas Kinkade paintings.
How does this series avoid all that? By extending the emotional range in both directions, so that the gloom and cruelty of Dickens's world feels truly disturbing, and warmth and light of justice and kindness truly a relief. This is no mean accomplishment, because while it's easy to find villains these days, it's hard to find characters as convincingly good as Esther Summerson (Anna Maxwell Martin) and her guardian, John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson).
I guess what I'm saying is that this series does not treat Dickens as a quaint old-fashioned moralist best suited to high school English classes. It brings out his brilliance at black comedy, in characters like Smallweed, the blood-sucking moneylender who goes about in a sedan chair complaining about his aching bones. Smallweed is played so brilliantly by Phil Davis, I looked forward to his every entrance and to watching those yellow rat's teeth chew up the scenery.
And beyond the comic, this adaptation makes room for sorrow. Yes, there is a happy ending, but only after several lives have come to bitter ends. Like Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the multi-generational law case at its heart, the plot closes with a perfect tradeoff. The characters lose exactly the amount they hoped to gain. For us readers and viewers, though, it is all gain.
Am I the only person tired of Martin Scorsese's sensibility, which was perfect for 1973 but has been old so long, it's ... well, dead?
In today's LA Times there is an item about Scorsese's next film project, stalled between two studios. The passage that caught my eye is about the film itself:
"On paper, the movie looks like a great investment: Scorsese once again directing his 'Aviator' and 'Departed' star Leonardo DiCaprio in an adaptation of the just-published cash-coke-and-corruption memoir 'The Wolf of Wall Street' ... , the autobiography of New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort, a flashy, drug-abusing, hooker-hiring, model-marrying master of the universe sent to jail for securities fraud and money laundering in the '90s."
Didn't we do this already? "Wall Street," "Bright Lights, Big City," "The Bonfire of the Vanities"? Or, assuming Scorsese makes no distinction between Wall Street and the Mafia, "Goodfellas"? The image of American business as gangsterism is the dominant one around the world, used to justify the corruption and excess of robber barons in Russia, China, and many other ruthless plutocracies. When the US government gets on its high horse and preaches good labor practices and business ethics, it is taken as a joke, because thanks to Hollywood, everyone in the world knows all Americans are mobsters.
Scorsese is getting a little long in the tooth to still be celebrating the rotten behavior of bad-boy gangs he never belonged to. Get over it, Marty. Your stuff is boring and pernicious.
For a full treatment of this topic, see my essay comparing "The Departed" with the much superior Hong Kong film it was based on, "Infernal Affairs."
Peter Berg made one of my favorite movies: the Texas football tragedy, Friday Night Lights. Does that qualify him to make a Saudi Arabian terrorism comedy? I exaggerate, of course. The Kingdom isn't a comedy, it's a state-of-the-art action flick. But what that means is plenty of comic moments stuck into the action the way nuts are stuck into baklava, to make it crunchier and tastier.
Comic moments also do a great service to action heroes and heroines, by humanizing them and showing how they can keep their cool even when being shot at. In these and other respects, The Kingdom, about a team of four FBI agents sent to solve a terrorist massacre in Riyadh, is technically expert but not thematically profound. The cast is great but predictable: two white guys, one a wise veteran (Chris Cooper) and the other a bumbler on a steep learning curve (Jason Bateman); one saintly tough African American (Jamie Foxx); and one sexy feisty gal with puffy lips and puffier you-know-whats (Jennifer Gault).
But here's the twist: the film adds two more cool customers, cast in the same mold, who are Saudis. One is a colonel played by Ashraf Barhom, an extraordinary actor about whom it is proving difficult at the moment to find a decent online bio. (He does such a good job, and is obviously so sought after, that this dearth of information is itself quite intriguing.) The other is his sergeant, played by Ali Suliman, who did such a brilliant job as a hesitant suicide bomber in Paradise Now. (Information on him is equally elusive.)
After all the complaints, some justified, of stereotyping of Arabs in Hollywood movies, especially the action genre, the presence of these two highly sympathetic characters (whose devotion to Islam is smoothly inserted) seems worthy of notice. At the same time, I wonder: The Kingdom was not filmed in Saudi Arabia but in Abu Dhabi (and Phoenix). But the image of the Saudis is so positive, the film could pass as state-of-the-art propaganda. It's not that, of course. It couldn't be. Could it?