January 2010

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Precious (2009) directed by Lee Daniels, is a surprising and courageous movie, despite its familiar TV-movie-of-the-week arc. It is the story of the person a middle class white New Yorker discounts the most. Riding the subway, or walking down the street, the people who are most invisible to us, or whom we feel have the least importance, are the least likely to make any contribution to the general getting-on of society, are fat, black, female, ugly and badly educated. “Precious” defiantly tells us the story of one such woman and reveals that, just like us, she has aspirations and opinions, desires to love and be loved.

This shouldn't be so shocking; if we were better people it would be intuitively true to us. But our media, which rarely tells us stories about fat or ugly people, obeys a couple of conventions. Fat people on screen must be charismatic (Kathy Bates or John Candy) and not really offensive to the eyes. Even the ugly must be so in an interesting or appealing kind of way (Ernest Borgnine, Lynn Redgrave, Kathy Bates again). In “Precious”, the creative team has succeeded in casting an actress—a very effective one—who lacks any of the usual appeal, who when we see her really does seem fat, ugly, mute and devoid of any redeeming qualities. So, when we come to value and respect her, to find her precious in the undisguised metaphor of the story, we are the more surprised.

“Precious” stands in fascinating contrast to the Sundance-type movies I have frequently complained about, in which wealthy whites live in the Hamptons, drive Mercedes and feel sorry for themselves. Precious has only a single moment of self pity in the entire movie, when she writes “Why me?” on a sheet of paper after being diagnosed with AIDS (contracted when she was raped by her father).

The movie has very effective supporting performances, including those by Mariah Carey as a cranky, quirky social worker and Mo'Nique (an exemplar of a beautiful, charismatic fat person) as Precious' mom. Mo'Nique in particular blows everyone else off the screen. The movie, despite its overly familiar story line about attention and redemption, reminds me of some favorite lines from Yeats:

That on the lonely height where all are in God's eye,
There cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,
A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.

Over two days, I saw two quaint movies of a nearly forgotten genre, the heavily narrated, propagandistic faux documentary drama. The first one, “13 Rue Madeleine” (1947), directed by Henry Hathaway and starring James Cagney, concerns the infiltration into France of a known German mole in American intelligence, in order to feed false information about the locus of the D-Day invasion. The film, which strains to overcome the sheer ordinariness of the narration, is unusual in a couple of respects. One is that everyone you care about dies. Secondly, Cagney, with his force and elan, lifts the movie out of its rut in the very last moment. Helpless and being tortured by the German double agent, he recognizes the droning of Allied airplanes sent to bomb the building and kill him so he cannot talk. He looks in the face of his nemesis and laughs as the bombs fall.

According to online sources, the movie was intended to glorify the OSS but all names had to be changed when its founder, “Wild Bill” Donovan, objected to its story of the agency's infiltration by a mole. The censors also objected to the idea of a bombing just to kill Cagney's character and prevent him from talking. In the end what is left is an appealingly gritty little spy movie hobbled by the gee-whiz narration.

“The House on 92nd Street” (1945) was also directed by Henry Hathaway. Unlike “Madeleine”, it lacks the driving power of a major star. Less interesting as a result, it tells the purportedly true story of attempted Nazi espionage of the American nuclear effort (were there really any German spies in an outfit so effectively riddled with Soviet agents?). The FBI inserts its own German-American double agent and stops the Nazis in their tracks. Also destroyed by newsreel narration, this movie is memorable only for its quirky German spies, including commanding and violent women and eccentric old men.

“The Machinist” (2004), directed by Brad Anderson, is a strange little mind-game of a type I particularly appreciate. It is like a David Lynch movie but is ultimately reduced by a more pedestrian explanation than Lynch usually gives us. A frighteningly emaciated Christian Bale (down to 120 pounds for the role) is an insomniac factory worker sinking into paranoid schizophrenia. He is confronted by a co-worker who apparently exists only in his imagination, and begins to come apart as he suspects a conspiracy against him joined by almost everyone he knows. There is a sinister game of “Hangman” being played in post-it notes left on his refrigerator (of course, we learn he is leaving them himself), Bale effectively delivers a series of scenes in which his character, Trevor Resnik, is in various surroundings of safety and comfort when we see him focus on one object—a photograph or a note—which he believes links his host to the conspiracy. Jennifer Jason Leigh is underutilized as a prostitute who loves him—a role she could deliver in her sleep—and the movie's most poignant moment comes when he drives her away. It is a great, weird performance by Bale, who has had a strange career arc, from the nerdy refugee child in “Empire of the Sun” to muscular Batman, with stops along the way at strange genre films like this one, “Reign of Fire” and “American Psycho”. The set design, lighting, cinematography and music all contribute to a magnificently creepy ambience. Bale's emaciation—every rib is visible—made me think about the fact that Holocaust movies always fail in the first moment because the actors are too well-fed. If they had Bale's will and dedication to roles, they wouldn't be.

The movie ends with a series of reveals which make it less than the sum of its parts: Resnik ran over a child a year or so ago, then left the scene, and has been dying of guilt ever since. At the end of the film, when he turns himself in, the implication is that he will be able to sleep and put some weight on again.

“This Sporting Life” (1963), directed by Lindsay Anderson, is a less successful example of the black and white British social realism movie. Reminiscent of “The Entertainer”, “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” and “Look Back in Anger”, and blessed with a great, intense performance by Richard Harris, the film tells the story of a working class man who becomes a professional rugby player. Along the way, he offends the powers that be in his profession, by his arrogant and overly honest behavior. The film gets side-tracked by an at first interesting subplot about a very damaged widow he loves. This story takes the foreground, but whimpers out when she dies of movie star disease. When last seen, he is back in the scrum, aging, feeling the hits more. But the developments that were signaled—the gotterdammerung of an arrogant, self confident man—are not delivered.

“Claire of the Moon” (1992), directed by Nicole Conn, is an earnest, amateurishly acted and directed lesbian love story which nevertheless emits some heat and light. A formerly straight woman novelist rooms with a lesbian psychiatrist at a writer's colony, and for most of the movie they circle around each other, attracted and resentful. When they get together, at the end, there is a loud “click” of rightness. The movie has an eloquent last shot: the women are in bed together, but the last thing we see is their intertwined fingers.

“The Long Voyage Home” (1940), directed by John Ford, is based upon several of the sea plays of Eugene O'Neill. It is a classic Ford construction, of men under pressure, this time the sailors on a freighter carrying ammunition. They eat, drink, joke, play music and sing, become suspicious of one another while crossing the Atlantic into the war zone, forgive one another and lose two of their number, to an accident and to the bullets of a strafing Luftwaffe plane. In London, there is a long and lovely coda, in which they attempt to ensure that one of them, played in a surprisingly small, supporting role, by John Wayne, boards a ferry to Sweden to go home to his farm and mother at last. During the drunken night, they lose him to a hell-ship called the Anhindra, then courageously rescue him. The tough Irishman who is their self appointed leader pauses on the deck of the Anhindra to taunt their adversaries, is knocked unconscious and carried out to sea, a replacement for the man he has just rescued. The film ends with a sailor on their own ship throwing a newspaper into the sea with a headline: “Anhindra torpedoed”.

“Secret Agent” (1936), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is based on the Ashenden espionage stories of Somerset Maugham. A British novelist turned soldier is recruited to spy for his government, and sent to kill a German agent in Switzerland. He and his assistant, the polyglot “General” of uncertain ethnicity played by Peter Lorre, push the wrong man off a cliff. Ashenden feels some guilt about it, but it is wartime and there are no consequences. In the end, they confront the right man, an avuncular, disarming American who has been in proximity the whole film. There are a couple of classic Hitchcock touches: a dead organist playing a single endless note, and an epic train crash at the end. There is a girl who is too honest and simple to be a true Hitchcock blonde, a type the master had not yet evolved.

“The Deep End of the Ocean” (1999), directed by Ulu Grossbard, is a fine but not great mmovie placed squarely at the end of Michelle Pfeiffer's career. She is the mother of a young son who vanishes when she turns her back for a moment in a hotel lobby. Nine years later, living in Chicago, she is certain a neighbor boy is her son, and she turns out to be right. The unlikely plot twist is handled fairly credibly, and is not the point of the movie, which is about what constitutes family. Her missing son Ben, now named Sam, is living with an innocent and loving stepfather who has no idea his dead wife abducted the boy in that hotel (he met them years later). Sam is torn between the loving home which is the only one he remembers, and the equally stable and loving new family which has a biological claim and also offers him siblings. In the end, his decision is based on a touching and credible sense memory, of the smell of cedar balls in a chest he accidentally fell into as a three year old. So families are based on the same bond as nations are according to Ernst Renan: what we remember (and forget) together.

The film is underplayed, deliberately so: when her son vanishes, Michelle Pfeiffer doesn't immediately scream and collapse; her marriage does not dissolve; her character is tightly withheld at all times, but the movie is the better. However, the inclusion of some stock situations and middling actors (Treat Williams, Whoopi Goldberg) prevent it from achieving greatness.

“The Dead Girl” (2006), written and directed by Karen Moncrieff, is a small tour de force, consisting of five connected stories relating to the murder of a girl in Los Angeles. The first is that of the woman who finds the body and the last is that of the victim herself. Along the way, we meet the wife of the serial killer, a pathologist at the morgue with a terrible loss in her own past, and the mother of the victim. There are five great roles for good actresses, and for a relatively small independent movie, it is amazingly cast, including Toni Collette, Marcia Gay Harden, and the late Brittany Murphy, an under-utilized actress for whom it was perhaps the role of her career. The stories, which glance off each other more than they interlock, are dark but not morbid. There is not a lot of hope; men are abusers if not killers, and most of the characters seem to be imprisoned in lives they can't escape. The killer is not caught, but when we last see his wife, burning the evidence and her own clothes and walking away naked, we feel some hope she will be picked up and her killer husband detected. The movie's main uplift occurs when the dead girl's mother finds her daughter's child and takes her back to Washington with her. This is an unusually well-written and executed entry in a genre which has become rather tiresome after some grandiose movies like “Crash”. It also participates in another nascent genre, the movie which is not primarily a detection story, in which a corpse, usually female, is the mcguffin (“True Confessions”, “River's Edge”, “Jindabyne”).

“Christmas in July” (1940), directed by Preston Sturges, is a lesser work of his. With the usual madcap pacing, the movie tells the story of a man who is tricked into thinking he has won a twenty-five thousand dollar prize in a contest. The film was marred for me by some ethnic stereotypes already unusual by the year it was made. The department store executives who come to the protagonist's neighborhood to repossess the presents he has purchased are recognizably Jewish, and worse, there is a cringingly “yassuh massuh” black janitor at his place of work. All of which is doubly disappointing in the work of an auteur with a reputation as a comic humanist.

“Black Snake Moan” (2006), written and directed by Craig Brewer, is a thoroughly bad movie I liked anyway, and I am not quite sure why. It doesn't have the so bad its good quality of “Plan 9 From Outer Space” or the near-miss quality of many movies that almost work. Probably it got me with the combination of a ridiculous premise and the earnestness of its hard-working actors, particularly Christina Ricci (still searching for life after plumpness) and Samuel Jackson, for whom there is no role or hairstyle too bizarre. He is a farmer whose wife leaves. She is a sex-addicted girl. For part of the movie, he chains her to the radiator to save her. The movie's dishonest intentions are confirmed by the fact that for much of the time, the upright, staunch and never-tempted farmer leaves the girl dressed in the halter and panties he found her in, so we, the male audience, can ogle her. He also gives her a bath and washes her back for no particular reason. But it all works out fine in the end, as he marries her off to her anxiety-stricken soldier boyfriend, finds a true-hearted pharmacist to address his own loneliness, and they all live happily ever after.

“The Shadow of the Wind” (2001), by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, is a Spanish magical realist novel which I found completely captivating. A ten year old boy is granted protectorship over a novel by an unknown author which he finds in an archive called “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books”. He spends years of his life investigating the life of the missing author, and as he does, his own life converges with that of the novelist and his last novel, also called “Shadow of the Wind”. Zafon writes beautifully about Barcelona in the thirties and after, making you nostalgic for places you have never been, as much great fiction does. The book averts you that it will be a tragedy, then gives you a relatively upbeat ending, made sad only by the loss of one important and very poignant character. Zafon has the gift, as few novelists working today do, of creating characters you would like to spend time with and get to know better.

“Little Children” (2004) by Tom Perotta is a counter-example, a snarky, superficial work peopled with detestable characters I wouldn't want to spend five minutes with. The one millionth instantiation of the adultery-in-suburbia novel, it has no real reason for existing, being published, or made into a movie starring Kate Winslet. A rootless younger woman working at Starbucks, having given up grad school, marries a middle-aged man, has a child and slides into existential despair, which she attempts to resolve by having an affair with someone else's jock husband, who is about to fail the bar exam for the third time. Life is empty and meaningless, lived in an atmosphere of maximum hypocrisy, and infidelity really has no moral implications because the people being cheated on are themselves hypocrites or cheaters. The book wants to be a comedy, but isn't funny or original enough. It isn't really a drama, because so little is at stake.

“Zip Six” (1996) by Jack Gantos is a novel about the prison experience by an author who has actually been in prison (for smuggling hash). It is as gritty and disturbing as you would expect, with a satisfying, sad, noirish pay-off. An interesting feature is that the protagonist, a middle class white boy, is almost us; he is a normal guy with a pathological, compulsive side which repeatedly draws him into trouble. An interesting theme of the novel is the protagonist's ambiguous relationship to trust: he constantly betrays people who trusted him, and trusts people who betray him.

“The Duellists” (1977), was director Ridley Scott's first feature, drawn from a Joseph Conrad story which was itself based on real events. Two Napoleonic officers begin a series of duels, first inspired by an imagined slight, which continue for more than twenty years, warping the lives of both of them. Its an almost perfect movie, tightly scripted and beautifully filmed, with no extraneous matter, and it delivers a very interesting riff on honor and violence. The sword-fighting scenes are savage, not at all the old-fashioned Errol Flynn sword-dancing you are used to.

“The Hidden Fortress” (1958) is a lesser Akira Kurosawa effort, peopled with tiresome screaming peasants and a princess with an unusually abrasive voice. It does however star Toshiro Mifune, an all-testosterone actor whom I would watch in almost anything, for his poise and dignity. He is a samurai, smuggling a princess through enemy territory, accompanied by two knaves. It was one of George Lucas' inspirations for “Star Wars”, but even bad Kurosawa is far better than Lucas' best efforts.

“The Twilight Samurai” (2004), directed by Yoji Yamada, is a decidedly non-Kurosawa, non-testosterone approach to the samurai mythos. It is the very end of the era; guns have appeared but are not ubiquitous. The protagonist is a nerdy, awkward man who hates to fight but is really good at it. The movie is a meditation on love, loss and fate. He is ordered to kill someone who has refused an order to commit suicide, and does so at great cost to himself, in a battle in which he tries to let the other man escape, but ends up wounding his feelings and having to kill him after all. At the end, he attains the love of his life, a childhood friend who had first married someone else. The narration tells us that he has her for only three years before he is shot to death in a political squabble, but that (in the opinion of his now elderly daughter, five at the time of these events) that was sufficient for fulfillment, for a happy and meaningful life.

“Man in the Vault” (1956), directed by Andrew McLaglen, is a minor and flawed noir which is nevertheless worth seeing for its slightly unusual plot and some decent scenes. A gangster tries to hire, then forces an honest young locksmith, to aid him in pillaging another gangster's safe deposit box. The scenes in the bank are tight and fine, the performances adequate. But a character stalking the protagonist is introduced in a scene which apparently refers to another not in this print (“Do you remember me?” “Yes, I made a key for you”) and a climactic confrontation with the stalker in an empty bowling alley is laughably badly conceived and executed. Mystifyingly, the final shoot-out among the more important criminals is taking place offstage at the same moment our hero is scurrying down the lanes at the bowling alley.

“I Vitelloni” (1953), is minor early Fellini with some of the magic missing, dragged down by a relatively pedestrian setting in a seaside town and a humdrum story about young friends trying to escape. Its still worth seeing for its performances and music, and some set pieces, including one in which two of the men try to sell a stolen statue of an angel.

“Lord Jim” (1965), directed by Richard Brooks, is a faithful but lackluster adaptation of the Conrad novel. For some reason, careful adaptations of classic novels are frequently lifeless, but this one is also muddled in other ways. The initial storm is the epitome of Hollywood special effects, scary enough that it undercuts the premise that Jim and his colleagues abandoned ship too easily. The resolution, in which Jim refuses to run again and faces an inexorable destiny, is clearer but talky and rather slow. As an entry in the “going native” genre (“Outcast of the Islands”, “Farewell to the King”, “Moon and Sixpence”) it is decent but not stellar.

“Elevator to the Gallows” (1957) directed by Louis Malle, is an interestingly structured, curiously unsatisfying noir. It has atmosphere but not much credibility as it is based on an absurd premise: a man murders his boss by rappeling up the side of their building in broad daylight, in full view of the traffic below. After posing the corpse in an apparent suicide—this is a locked room murder, more typical in a cozy mystery, unusual in a noir—he of course forgets his rappeling equipment on the outside of the building, must return for it and is trapped all night in the elevator. Meanwhile, an unrelated crook steals his car and commits some killings which he is blamed for, using his other gun. In a third subplot, his mistress, the victim's wife, wanders Paris all night, looking for him. The putative lovers never play a single scene of the movie together. The movie does not live up to its wonderful title.

“Strange Pilgrims” (1992) is a book of short stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez about Latin Americans lost or stranded in various cities in Europe. Although it has much of his old magic, it lacks the intensity and savagery of the earlier work. It is easy to see why: whenever he uses the first person, the narrator is comfortable, wealthy, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous of the European arts world; the old isolation and hunger are naturally no longer there. Still, some of these stories, including the last one about a young man who loses his injured wife in the confusion of Paris and never sees her again, are quite beautiful.

As a child and teenager, I adored Humphrey Bogart and formed a resolution to see every-one of his more than seventy movies. In those days, before VCR's, this meant waiting until they were shown on local television stations like WPIX, or included in triple features at the two premier New York revival houses, the Elgin and Thalia.

I still love Bogart and have seen more than forty of his films. Last night I saw two new ones, courtesy of a day-long marathon on Turner Classic Movies. Sadly, I missed several other hard to find, obscure late career films, unavailable on DVD, such as “Chain Lightning” and “Battle Circus”.

“Deadline, USA” (1952), directed by Richard Brooks, is that rarest of things, a Hollywood movie aimed at grown-ups. Though it is also a thriller about a newspaper's investigation of a mafioso, it pauses along the way for an examination of newspapers' importance in civil society, and to freedom of speech. When the probate judge ruling on the paper's proposed sale acknowledges he has been a reader for thirty-nine years, and an immigrant witness to a murder says that she trusts the paper more than the police because it taught her English, we have the sense of a necessary institution, one of the cornerstones of the society portrayed. The backdrop to the action is the decision by the founder's heirs to sell the paper to a tabloid competitor which is planning to close it—a theme which remains timely and poignant today, as newspapers continue to vanish from the scene. Bogart is energetic as the editor, a role that is not much of a stretch for him.

“The Left Hand of God” (1955), directed by Edward Dmytryk, was one of Bogart's last films. It is a muddled epic in which he is a mercenary, masquerading as a priest who slowly but inexorably is converted to faith by the role he is playing. As such, it is reminiscent of a favorite theme of Graham Greene's, but the latter would have given it a much more tragic turn, while this one ends with Bogart saving a Chinese village by throwing dice with a warlord, then riding away from the woman he has fallen in love with, still dressed as a priest. The muddled script, after offering us a nascent love affair with a nurse played by Gene Tierney, then has Bogart ride off without saying goodbye, while she waves cheerfully, as if to a cousin she will see again in a week. Add some sadly trite performances by Chinese American actors who deserved better, and the typical casting of Caucasians in lead Chinese roles (Lee J. Cobb as a warlord), and this is decidedly a lesser film in Bogart's canon.

Avatar” (2009), written and directed by James Cameron, is likely the best science fiction film ever made, but that isn't saying very much. On the level of script and concept alone, it is a rather pedestrian parable, in which an indigenous alien race stand in for the Navajo in one of the late Indian-sympathetic Westerns. The Navi use bows and arrows, are intimately attuned to the forest, are proud and make decisions collectively, and are being pushed off their land by the “whites”, here known as the “sky people”. The movie is the first in which an alien culture is portrayed in loving detail, as something other than rampaging, slavering-toothed monsters, yet with very little invention. There is a rule that a story must have a reason to be told as science fiction; disguised Westerns, a very common phenomenon in movie science fiction especially (“Star Wars”, “Soldier”) do not qualify. Cameron's extreme cleverness in setting up a strange situation, then working out its permutations, as in “The Abyss”, is not very evident here, though there is a little of it. Amusingly, Cameron invents a funny mcguffin, “unobtainium”, a valuable mineral under Navi land which is barely mentioned and never explained. “Unobtainium” continues the Tarantinoesque trend of the mystery mcguffin, the undescribed object which causes all the bother.

As pure spectacle, this movie is amazing, even in two dimensions. The alien world is compulsively and beautifully art designed, and the Navi themselves are just alien enough to be fascinating, yet human enough that we can feel the heat when the transformed human protagonist falls in love with a Navi woman. Cameron keeps the action going nonstop; we can identify some of his favorite toys and themes, such as the killer corporate geek borrowed from “Aliens”. The prosthetic warrior body, driven by a human, which Ripley fitted to herself to fight the Queen at the end of that same movie, plays a large role here.

Cameron's loyalty to actors is laudable, and the most lovely grace note of “Avatar” is the inclusion of Sigourney Weaver, as the invaders' token xenologist whom nobody listens to. She carries it off with great dignity, and I couldn't help thinking that this character is what the “real” Ripley would have aged into, instead of having to fight the same alien over and over, because Hollywood series must always do the same thing and can't allow their characters an arc.