March 2010

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace


Guarantee: many spoilers


            Dickens' “The Old Curiosity Shop” is the expert story-spinner at his bloviating, florid worst. Full of characters who don't even have names (“the schoolteacher”, “the single gentleman”), the novel is long, sketchy and full of inconsequential characters who don't serve any real purpose. The villains drown or surrender themselves to justice not when circumstances drive them there, but when they have been villains long enough and the plot so requires. Oddly, the crime for which they turn themselves in, or die, is one of completely unclear motivation against a subsidiary character; the supposed protagonist, Little Nell, is off elsewhere for most of the novel. When at last, she dies, it is also not really forced by circumstance; it is more of a fainting or an evaporation of an evanescent creation (most often referred to as “the child”) who, if she hung around any longer, would wind up rich like Oliver, or married, like Little Dorrit, with whom I once confused her.  Even the curiosity shop of the title is only in the novel for a few pages, and is in no way central to the plot.


            Oscar Wilde was right on when he opined that one must have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.


            “Drums Along the Mohawk” (1939), directed by John Ford, is a great Revolutionary war movie, despite moments of mawkish sentimentality. Citizen-farmers march off to war, and come back stunned, wounded, dirty and near-psychotic, over and over again. The movie spares us most of the battle scenes, and contains one of the great monologs of all time, in which Henry Fonda tells his wife how the people around him were shot and speared, how the man standing next to him was murdered, how he himself had to kill someone in hand to hand combat, how only a third of their force survived the battle—and then only thinks to mention at the end, that it was a victory.


            “Ballad of a Soldier” (1959), directed by Gregori Chukrai, was one of only a few movies which made it into US distribution during the height of the Soviet era. It is propaganda, but jolly, humanist and quasi-anti-war in its import, full of happy compassionate soldiers, and centering on one (named Alyosha, of course) who is a kind of saintly puppy. Having immobilized two tanks singlehanded, he is given a 24 hour leave, and we follow him home on trains and hitching rides, as he falls in love with a girl, has a warm impact on several other lives and so forth. If you take this movie on its unabashedly kitschy terms, you will weep without restraint when Alyosha reaches his village just in time to hug his mother, turn right around and go back to die at the front.


            “True Grit” (1969), directed by Henry Hathaway, is one of the last of the classic Westerns, in which the world winds up more or less in balance and as it should be, as opposed to the bleak, dystopian ballads of injustice epitomized by movies like “The Missouri Breaks” just a few years later. John Wayne as a flawed, old, overweight lawman travels with and protects a teenager, Mattie, who herself is without any sentimentality (she shoots a man at a key moment, and regrets she didn't shoot him better). The dialog itself belongs to an interesting genre, the naïve, colorful, curse-filled and overly expository, which would survive into the dystopian westerns and continue into work as late as the “Deadwood” series on HBO.


            “Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog” (2008), written and directed by Joss Whedon, is a wonderful little whatsit, and a hoot. An intelligent, compassionate would-be super-villain faces a vain, narcissistic and brutal super-hero—and sings about it. Unfortunately, due to budget and length restrictions in a web-based series, there isn't enough time for a fully realized arc, so the story just craters abruptly.


            “Shock Corridor” (1963), directed by Samuel Fuller, is a famously over the top whatsit about a journalist who gets himself committed to an asylum to solve a murder. There was no particular necessity to make his otherwise refined girlfriend a stripper, or to show her in several production numbers. Inside, every inmate he befriends or interrogates is more outrageous than the one before; the soldier who defected to the North Koreans who now believes he is a Civil War hero; the black man who famously integrated a white school under court order, but now believes he is a member of the KKK. In one of the most ridiculous movie scenes of all time, the protagonist wanders into a roomful of perfectly ordinary looking young women. “Nymphos!” he screams as they bear him to the floor, biting chunks out of his face and neck. Replete with bad performances, the film portrays its hero as fairly unstable in the first place; by the end, he has solved the not very interesting murder, but is catatonic. As Dan Quayle said when asked to repeat the United Negro College Fund tagline: “Its a terrible thing to lose your mind.”


            Crimson Rivers” (2001), directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, represents the sad merger of the French movie with the Hollywood action ideal. The wonderful Jean Reno, one of those actors like Walter Huston whose face is his performance, strolls through the movie as a homicide detective frightened of dogs for a reason which is never explained (in a pleasing enough gimmick, the explanation, given at the very end, is drowned out by helicopter rotors).  The rest is a confusing pastiche of “Silence of the Lambs”, “Seven” and hundreds of other movies, with a risible final plot twist involving twins. Its all atmospheric and watchable, but its still a sad day when French directors make American movies.


            “Crazy Heart” (2009), directed by Scott Cooper, was a major disappointment. Among the best independent movies ever made are some small stories of people's economic, moral and drug- or alcohol-driven fall and their eventual redemption (or not). The idea of a movie about a country star who has seen better days driving himself hundreds of miles from gig to gig, playing in bowling alleys and small bars, is an appealing one. However, it is hardly a fresh idea; this movie has no real reason to exist next to “Tender Mercies” or “Fabulous Baker Boys”.


            The real problem with this movie is in the casting. Perhaps Billy Bob Thornton and Vera Farmigia or Jennifer Beals could have pulled it off. Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhall cannot. They are both actors who are cool and congenial, and they simply don't bring the desperation the story requires. Jeff Bridges, an actor who is almost always watchable, has the right wrinkled, pot bellied look, but he will always be The Dude from “The Big Lebowski”--he looks like he has suffered,  but cannot act that way. Similarly, Gyllenhall, whom I had always liked until now, failed to persuade me that she was devastatingly lonely or frightened. The writing contributes to the problem by keeping the stakes lower than they were intended to be. When Bridges gets drunk and loses Gyllenhall's child, it isn't really his fault—the boy slips away during seconds of inattention, and is returned before we have that much chance to worry about him. Minutes later, when Bridges decides to become sober, he does so in a single quick montage with no apparent struggle. By the end, though I appreciated the milieu and the look of the film, I didn't really believe in these characters. For a much better recent movie about a falling loner with very little but with everything to lose, see “Wendy and Lucy”.


            When I am in Manhattan and have a few hours to kill, I pass by the two multiplexes which face each other across 42nd Street at 8th Avenue and see whatever “guilty pleasure” movie is starting in the next few minutes. Recently I saw two of these, which were entertaining without being very good. Both were directed by brothers working together.


            Daybreakers(2010), directed by the Spierig Brothers, is a vampire film which breaks some new ground. The vamps have taken over and now constitute ninety-five percent of world population. Humans are in hiding and when caught, are rendered comatose and hung up in factory farms reminiscent of the global battery in “Matrix”. The problem is that the blood is running out, and vampires who don't get enough of it become moronic, batlike and violent---a danger to their own kind. A race is on to invent a blood substitute. Ethan Hawke, as a reluctant vampire sympathetic to humans, is a hematologist contacted by renegade underground humans who teach him a cure for vampirism. This is basically an eco-thriller about declining resources and contains a dystopia within a dystopia: a society of brutal vampires is terrified by the prospect of the chaotic fall of their civilization.


            “The Book of Eli” (2010), directed by the Hughes Brothers, stars the always intense and engaging Denzel Washington, as a Mad Max-style loner who wanders the wasteland after a nuclear holocaust. He bounces off the kinds of character actors who always redeem these kinds of movies: Gary Oldman and Tom Waits in particular, both of whom were born to play quirky dwellers in radioactive deserts. Washington's character, portentously named “Walker” (echoes of Hoban's “Riddley Walker” and the mythic “Captain Walker” for whom Mel Gibson is mistaken in “Beyond Thunderdome”) is unusually humble and resistant to violence, apologizing and attempting to walk away before killing thirty people with his sword. A revelation in the last minutes of the movie that he is blind and navigates the world and these fights by sound provides a satisfying click, taking us back to scenes where we thought he was just spacey. However, the protagonist's humility, and the fact that the Mcguffin is a bible, quickly lead to another revelation which should have been disclosed in the movie's advertising. This is a proselytizing Christian parable. Certainly filmmakers have a right to make these kinds of movies for the audiences who want to see them, but as a secular Jew I feel I was tricked into seeing this one. The idea that angry hoi polloi eliminated almost every copy of the Bible in their rage after nuclear war is laughable (though also at the center of the classic “A Canticle for Leibowitz”). The movie's confusion and desire to have it both ways is visible in a late scene when the newly printed Bible—dictated by the dying Walker from memory—is placed on a shelf next to the Torah and Koran. Were these similarly destroyed and reconstituted? Or did the angry multitudes only blame the Christians for the war?


            “The 49th Parallel” (1942) is a lesser entry from the great Michael Powell. German U boat crewmen are loose in Canada after their sub is destroyed. Everyone they encounter is quirky, democratic and resistant both to their force and their persuasion. The film is didactic, with characters spending a lot of time explaining why nobody should be a Nazi. There are some beautiful Canadian vistas.


            “1900” (1976), directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, is a four hour epic about two Italian families, one aristocratic, one peasant, from the turn of the century to the end of World War II. Starring a very young Robert DeNiro and Gerard Depardieu, people emote, scream, behave bizarrely and go crazy as they always seem to in Bertolucci films; but the story nevertheless coheres into a fascinating study of the roots of fascism, as one family fights and the other, uneasy in its liberal conscience, stands by and benefits from it. There are many moments of queasy violence—Donald Sutherland kills a cat with a head butt and later bashes a young boy's brains out against the wall. And there are also typical moments of almost self-parodying Socialist Realism—triumphant peasants walking into the camera with weapons   and grave expressions while kitschy music swells on the soundtrack. Yet it is a raw and visceral film, and worth seeing.

            “A Star is Born(1955), directed by George Cukor, should have been a better movie given its gripping story of a married couple whose careers are heading in different directions. Part of the problem is that the musical numbers are largely bland and forgettable; part is the direction, which encouraged Garland to sink into kitschy tears and hysteria when she was capable of much more.