Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My Week with Marilyn

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN                C+              
Great Britain  USA  (99 mi)  2011  'Scope  d:  Simon Curtis

Once more during the holiday season, viewers are blitzed by trailers of two big production, Hollywood style releases that include Meryl Streep as Maggie Thatcher in THE IRON LADY and Michelle Williams in this film as Marilyn Monroe, where in both instances the actresses don’t so much inhabit the real life roles as consume the part in body and spirit.  Williams has been getting the best reviews of her life for this film, where Roger Ebert Chicago Sun-Times [Roger Ebert] has already declared her an Academy Award nominee, and there is no doubt that she is excellent, as she continually pouts like a hurt puppy with demure affectations that demand not just attention but adulation whenever she’s around and she wears many of the same costumes and hairstyles, matches the voice inflection, even sings like Marilyn, but never for a single second can she be confused for the real persona of Ms. Monroe.  Similarly, but getting much fewer raves, Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier, the director and actor in the movie, is a stickler for things like rules and punctuality and shooting on time, where Branagh hams up the role with pompous relish, coming across as a tyrannical authoritarian who throws tantrums on the set while waiting for Ms. Monroe to show up.   Based on the personal memoirs of Colin Clark, who had a minor role in the movie production of a relatively 2nd rate film, THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1957), shot in London, the story suggests he was an invaluable comfort to Ms. Monroe, perhaps even having an affair with her when she was suffering a crisis in confidence after her shattered marriage started to unravel with playwright Arthur Miller just weeks after they were married.  Despite Ms. Monroe’s real life reputation as the world’s greatest sex symbol, this is a rather timid and sexless version of her life.  Like the exaggerated self promotion and fictionalized speculation surrounding personal memoirs, this suggested love affair, much like the one portrayed in Eastwood’s J. EDGAR (2011), may never have happened at all, but that is the story of movies, to make one wonder. 

A child of wealth and privileged status, Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) is determined to make a name for himself in the movies, and to do it without his family’s help.  To this end, he runs off to London looking for a job in Olivier’s next production, which happens to star the infamous Ms. Monroe, where she is continually hounded by gawkers, photographers and the British tabloids.  Colin lands a role as an errand boy for Olivier and the producers, often to fetch the wayward American star, where in her ever prolonged absences she learns to depend upon his company.  While Olivier and the entire cast are waiting for Marilyn to appear on the set for an informal run through, Marilyn can’t go anywhere without her personal acting coach, method acting instructor Paula Strasberg (Zoë Wanamaker), where she remains personally and psychically inseparable, unable to make any move without her, a crutch if ever there was one, which completely exasperates the director on the film who simply wants Marilyn to effortlessly exude her natural sexual charm on camera for what amounts to a light and breezy costume comedy.  Marilyn’s approach, however, working for the legendary Olivier, considered the British actor of his generation, was if preparing for great British theater, wanting to broaden her reputation and be taken seriously as an actress.  Despite flubbing her lines and behaving like a diva offscreen, her onscreen presence couldn’t have been more captivating, much like floating on air, making those around her appear to be wearing lead boots.  Her natural beauty and air of naïve vulnerability was like nothing seen before or sense, as she depicts a neurosis laden modern temperament in every frame yet remains stuck in these ancient and sexually repressive costume dramas.  Michelle Williams is especially brilliant in the musical numbers and the successful daily shoots, where she’s literally mimicking this legendary screen presence, but her real life depictions of a fragile star depending on the kindness of a stranger, that being Colin, simply have no weight behind them. 

Colin Clark’s character is the real dead weight of the film, as he never evolves past a star gazer, a young kid who idealizes what’s in front of him, who’s already star struck just getting onto a movie set for the first time in his life, where his infatuation with movies is right out of CINEMA PARADISO (1988), most likely resorting to fantasy in his memoirs, where there’s a certain depth missing for why Monroe would be attracted to him in the first place, as he’s just a kid, really, like Jimmy Olsen at the Daily Planet, young, naïve, and inexperienced.  Without a real romance, but largely a friendly kiss and chat affair, this poses the question as to why make the film in the first place?  It’s lack of real drama is likely to be seen as something of a disappointment, where only the exploitation of a screen legend combined with a hot Hollywood property offers the enticing sizzle this film hopes to achieve.  Part of the problem is also costuming Ms. Williams to resemble Ms. Monroe, where she’s not as shapely, so they’ve obviously added padding around her hips to help recreate the image, which alters the curve of her natural waistline, but this shouldn’t be so noticeable.  Unfortunately, due to the tightness of the dresses worn, this is an unnecessary distraction throughout the picture.  Also, Marilyn Monroe’s face is so familiar, literally an iconic image, that it’s impossible to ever imagine you’re seeing anyone other than actress Michelle Williams onscreen, especially in the close ups.  Perhaps with previous Oscar winners Colin Firth as King George VI (2010), Sean Penn as Harvey Milk (2008), Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin (2006), Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote (2005), or Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles (2004), the personal identification with the screen image was not so entrenched in the viewer’s imaginations as Marilyn Monroe, perhaps the most photographed screen legend ever.  That notwithstanding, Michelle Williams, as always, gives a first rate performance, but she’s continually overshadowed by the hovering presence of the real Marilyn Monroe, where she pales in comparison.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Child Is Waiting

A CHILD IS WAITING          B                     
USA  1963  (102 mi)  d:  John Cassavetes  

I've always had a sweet spot for this 1963 film, made 5 years before the release of FACES, a more conventional film using footage of handicapped children from the Pacific State Hospital in Pomona, California, one of the first State facilities for mentally impaired children.  This is a remarkable attempt at realism, using moments of documentary style in a fictional film about mental retardation that refuses to look at the children in a group home as victims, but rather as human beings, each needing the help of others.  The film attempts to give the children as much screen time as the so-called stars, which caused something of a scandal on the set.  Apparently, Cassavetes’ message was too radical at the time, as he was fired from the film by producer Stanley Kramer, who then recut the film, ordering more close-ups, making it more sentimental.  Apparently both Lancaster and Garland appealed to him for help from Cassavetes' direction, both openly defying him on the set.  In Ray Carney's book, it is described as follows:  "Cassavetes' treatment of his stars was a textbook lesson in how to alienate everyone possible."  However, in Cassavetes' view, the children were more important in this film than the stars.  Despite some overglossed musical strings on occasion, it’s still a surprisingly unflinching look at a largely ignored problem—one might say a follow up to Frank Perry’s 1962 film, DAVID AND LISA.

Burt Lancaster is appointed by the State to run the home, and at first he appears hard and ignoble with the children, especially one problem child, Reuben (played by actor Bruce Ritchey), who he believes the system has failed, but his somewhat radical intention is to treat the children as responsible individuals.  Enter Judy Garland, of all people, as a troubled, down and out spirit who is looking to find a place where she might be needed.  Having no real qualifications, other than being a Julliard Music School drop out, and having no real professional objectivity, she immediately pities the children and assumes the role of Reuben’s missing mother, so he follows her wherever she goes.  Then on false pretenses, she summons Reuben’s real mother, Gena Rowlands, as every Wednesday, Reuben gets dressed up and waits for his parents that never show up on visiting day.  This calls into question everyone’s views in an extraordinarily dramatic confrontation.  Lancaster's unbending system is challenged by Garland, whose histrionics are challenged by Rowlands, all are challenged by Reuben, enter the State bureaucrats who really want to wash their hands of the whole problem, threatening to cut finding as it’s not a feel good issue with the public.  Who wants to raise children no one wants to see? 

Largely disowned by Cassavetes for changing the entire tone of the film, the theater of the uncomfortable is really evident here with broken families, love gone awry, disturbingly flawed characters, big emotional moments, Gena Rowlands nervously smoking a cigarette while wearing gloves, as it’s hard to witness mentally impaired children being themselves, but Cassavetes raises important issues, mostly through the peppering questions of Lancaster, who refuses to let the bureaucrats decide their worth through potential employability.  The film does a good job examining society’s response to “damaged” children, where parents immediately alter their expectations, becoming disappointed, embarrassed, eventually hiding their children from public view, supposedly for their own good.   And if they allow them to interact with normal children, they’re bound to be teased and humiliated, as children can be relentlessly judgmental.  Rowlands, of course, is excellent as the disappointed parent who’s too consumed with personal anguish and shame to be able to relate with her son anymore.  Cassavetes wraps up the entire issue in a manner unique to his own particular vision, in a grand, sweeping finale that features the children in a Settlers and Indians Thanksgiving theatrical revue where they are all, at least for a moment, shining stars, continually perplexed with remembering their lines, but singing happily anyway.  In Cassavetes' view, it's the adults that label them retarded, when really, they're just children.   

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Rosemary's Baby

ROSEMARY’S BABY            B+                  
USA  (136 mi)  1968  d:  Roman Polanski  

Fresh from her lurid role in the immensely popular but trashy night time soap opera of Peyton Place (1964 – 1969), Mia Farrow’s fame from her role as the introverted Allison Mackenzie just took off afterwards, where intense interest in her offscreen marriage to Frank Sinatra (thirty years older!!!) became tabloid fodder.  But after two years of trying to get out of her contract, she used his clout to finally get released from the show.  When she refused to quit her role in ROSEMARY’S BABY to work in his forgettable film THE DETECTIVE (1968), Sinatra served her divorce papers on the set, though years later he did offer to have Woody Allen’s legs broken during their highly contentious divorce where Allen ended up sleeping with and ultimately marrying Farrow’s adopted daughter.  All of this is simply background information for the abundantly youthful character she plays in this film, a beautiful wide-eyed innocent who is the picture of joy, but who eventually transforms to an older, more cautiously wiser woman who spits in the face of her husband (John Cassavetes).  Shot in that loopy, early 60’s style, the opening credits have that ultra colorful Hullabaloo TV show look, using light pastels to project a world that is all cheerful and bright.  But when Satanic chants can be heard through the walls of their overly spacious New York apartment, followed by a young woman in the building who falls over a balcony to her death, the audience suspects something a little creepy is going on in that building.  Made by the director of REPULSION (1965), which features a similar eerie psychological transformation by the stunningly gorgeous Catherine Deneuve who grows delusional when left alone inside an apartment, but here Farrow’s flashback-style delusional dreams slowly become her reality, where she is left alone to contend with and ultimately embrace a hellish nightmare that becomes her life, with no possible way out.  This from a man whose wife (Sharon Tate) was stabbed a year later more than a dozen times in a brutal murder by the Charles Manson clan just weeks before she was expected to give birth.  Somehow, all the melodramatic hysteria and trauma surrounding Polanski’s real life comes front and center into this movie, where the audience is projecting all that information onto the screen to create their own nightmarish scenarios.

Knowing the salacious appetite of the public, Polanski, to his credit, slows the film down from the outset, showing the happy couple mired in the most mundane details of ordinary life, where they search for a new apartment, begin refurbishings, and meet their new neighbors down the hall, where being sociable starts becoming a chore, especially for Rosemary who finds the continual intrusions draining, especially the extreme familiarity immediately established from wrinkled, overly made up Ruth Gordon, the diminutive elderly neighbor who takes bad taste and being nosy to an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.  Because of how eerily uncomfortable she makes you feel with each successive appearance, growing more forward over time and more menacing, her role has become iconic.   Her husband, meanwhile (Sidney Blackmer), is a smooth talking man of the world, seemingly a perfect gentleman, though both hide under the shroud of normalcy where no one would suspect they were involved with foul play.  That Rosemary’s husband would take such an interest in their company is something of a surprise, as it is his love and fidelity that she is counting on, especially when she decides to get pregnant, which they turn into an intimate night alone.  But that all changes when Rosemary is drugged, leading into a creepy hallucination sequence where a figment of her imagination that she is being held captive by a coven of naked Satan worshippers becomes stunning real, especially when she is raped by Satan himself, all mysteriously forgotten by the next morning except for the marks left on her body.  While this is bizarre enough, Cassavetes takes no interest whatsoever in his wife’s condition, constantly making excuses for his mind being elsewhere, when out of nowhere, an actor with a lead role Cassavetes covets is suddenly struck blind, making the part instantly available for him.  His sudden success is staggering, as it matches his indifference to Rosemary who is swooning in a delirium of confusion and forced isolation.  Ruth Gordon is behind a gift of jewelry for Rosemary which contains a bizarre and foul smelling root, also a sudden switch in doctors, and an herbal concoction that she is to drink daily.  All involved ignore the serious labor pains she undergoes, everyone calmly reminding her that this is “normal.”

Rosemary undergoes a radical shift in her appearance, cutting her long hair to a short pixie cut, which everyone around her immediately finds ugly and a terrible mistake.  It’s clear she’s entering new territory, constantly guarded by Gordon or one of her friends, presumably for her health and safety, but all avenues to the outside world are eventually shut leaving Rosemary completely alone.  Like Deneuve in REPULSION, Rosemary suffers an internal crisis of anxiety, where she’s tempted by the thought of the conspiring witches from her dreams, but she soon dispels these notions, finding them too incredible.  But as Polanski continues to lay out new clues, she is repeatedly lured back to the same suspicions, that literally everyone has been lying to her to cover up dark and insidious practices.  How this can happen in the modern era seems incredulous, but Rosemary’s journey only grows more deliriously feverish as she has nowhere to turn, becoming a psychological nightmare with no relief.  The pressure on her shoulders is enormous, but she carries this weight with tremendous tact and intelligence, even as she is outnumbered and outmaneuvered.  What she discovers is that the nightmare is real, that deception is the reality, that there is nowhere to turn, in short, that she has been deceived in order to deliver the devil’s child.  Despite this horrific discovery, it still leaves her few options, as the Satanists eventually reveal themselves for what they are, and her husband for the dolt that he is for making a deal with the devil, and they have taken root in her building where she is perched near the top like a bird in a nest, only without the needed wings to fly away.  She remains doomed to a life of unending torment, controlled by the powers that be, where the idea of motherhood in captivity becomes synonymous with David Lynch’s creepy industrialized black & white vision of parenthood in ERASERHEAD (1976).        

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Fury

THE FURY                              B+                  
USA  (118 mi)  1978  d:  Brian De Palma

One of Pauline Kael’s favorites, a movie that meets her loving criteria of trashy films as art, where according to Michael K. Crowley from The House Next Door Objects of Appalling Beauty: An Appreciation of Brian De Palma:  “She called his films serious, compared them to works by Godard and Antonioni, and devoted pages and pages to cataloguing their virtues and, when necessary, their deficiencies. Certainly one of the most daring sentences she ever authored appeared in her 1978 review of The Fury, in which she asserted that De Palma had at last directed a movie that surpassed in intensity, vision and number of classic sequences anything directed by Hitchcock. In her defense of De Palma, Kael made adversaries and—in the eyes of the critical establishment—jeopardized her credibility. She was pilloried and even parodied by other critics. But she never backed down.”  Kael went further in her admiration for this film:  “This finale -- a parody of Antonioni's apocalyptic vision at the close of "Zabriskie Point" -- is the greatest finish for any villain ever. One can imagine Welles, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Spielberg still stunned, bowing to the ground, choking with laughter.”

Where does one begin?  This kind of overpraise is more shocking than the film, which chugs along like a typical B-movie, carrying the weight of plausibility on its shoulders despite the presence of improbable stars like Kirk Douglas and John Cassavetes, both extremely intense individuals in their own right, who despite their opening cordiality turn into arch enemies in the film.  Following the success of CARRIE (1976), what did the world need during the post Vietnam era of the 70’s but another telekinetic horror movie, this one starring two similarly endowed college age kids, Andrew Stevens as Robin Sandza, Kirk Douglas’s son, and Amy Irving as Gillian, neither of whom ever meet except telepathically.  The opening sequence is so cheesy that it could just as easily have been pilfered from the latest Elvis movie, where it’s hard not to laugh at the blatant Palestinian stereotypes and the less than spectacular special effects.  Douglas and Cassavetes share a similar history of working for a secret Government organization, which adds to the allure of the film, as following the Vietnam and Watergate debacles, behind-the-scenes, secret CIA organizations were looked upon with outright suspicion, as if they had deceitfully derailed the moral purpose of government in the first place, to provide for the common good, and done so behind everyone’s backs.  To put it another way, Childress (Cassavetes) steals Peter Sandza’s (Douglas) son right out from under him, making it look like his father died, where Peter is declared dead by the U.S. government and forced to live underground for the rest of the film in order to keep the government and Childress from finding him.

The movie shifts to the idyllic sunny beaches of Lake Michigan, where Gillian and her friends are typical teenagers, but Gillian has special powers that even she doesn’t understand, as she has visions that are powerfully real, yet so intense that anyone touching her at the time bleeds heavily, causing a kind of panic for all involved.  Of course, Gillian’s mother doesn’t seem too alarmed and runs off to Europe, never to be seen again in the movie, much of which takes place in recognizable Chicago locations, including a mesmerizing set piece taking place at the now torn down Old Chicago Amusement Park in Bollingbrook, leaving her daughter to fend for herself at a mysterious medical institute known as Paragon, a clinic uniquely specializing in studying the powers of telepathy, where Gillian scores off the charts, as Robin did before her, which catches the eyes of Childress, who secretly harbors his own devious intentions.  It’s Gillian who can see what Childress is doing with Robin Sandza, who's been moved to a secret location where he’s a captive guinea pig, a test rat living under scientific observations where his every move is monitored closely.  Gillian’s identification with Robin is like discovering a lost identical twin, where the power between them is like nothing she’s ever experienced.  Peter, meanwhile, is attempting to track down his son through a nurse at the clinic, Hester (Carrie Snodgrass), where he’s romantically seducing her in order to get information on his son.  Hester ends up Gillian’s only friend there, as everyone else seems to be plotting against her.  Her daring escape plays out like an extended choreographed slow-motion ballet for which there are serious consequences.       

Gillian has struggled to keep her telekinetic visions under control, but despite her best efforts, people continue to get hurt, and even worse, killed, which mirrors exactly what happens around Peter, only without the secret powers.  Their very presence attracts danger to anyone who is near, always connected by the hovering presence of Childress, the dark force of evil that wants to corral and ultimately possess her powers, much like the scientists poking and prodding David Bowie as the alien from outer space in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976).  Where all this leads is to another whirlwind finale, where the world literally spins out of control and all hell breaks loose, exactly what Gillian has been trying to prevent.  Cassavetes, much as he was in Rosemary's Baby (1968), is simply a detestable character, an abomination to humankind, like a villain out of a James Bond movie who deserves a more heinous nickname, as he’s hell-bent on controlling the world.  Searching for Robin, Douglas and Irving are an unlikely pair, as none of the characters in the movie really gel together, instead it’s all about creating the mood and atmosphere of a strangely dark and paranoid world that’s under a veiled attack unbeknownst to anyone except these few who have the fate of the world resting in their hands.  It veers into the world of the macabre, but in doing so, distinguishes this director with another thrilling finale, one filled with operatic grandeur and obsessive hallucinatory moments. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Yards

THE YARDS                  A                 
USA  (115 mi)  1999  ‘Scope  d:  James Gray

Like an offshoot from THE GODFATHER (1972), using a tense and beautifully realized naturalism with an equally impressive cast, this searingly intense story remains Gray’s best work exposing the behind-the-scenes corruption where various well connected families vie for control and power from the lucrative contracts awarded to provide repairs of the New York City subway system.  The director’s own father worked for a company that supplied parts and needed services for the New York subway, adding an autobiographical touch of authenticity to this story written by Matt Reeves and the director.  It is this close, intimate glimpse that gives the film its power, basically the story of two best friends, a young Joaquin Phoenix as Willie, an on-the-edge character in over his head, as usual, and Mark Wahlberg as Leo, fresh out of prison on car heists, where he apparently took the fall for the rest of the gang.  Shot by Harris Savides who subsequently became Gus van Sant’s cinematographer, the film opens with a welcome home party for Leo awash in warm golden tones with glowing faces accentuated by candlelight, where the restless mood showcases what’s best about James Gray films, where the everpresent food and din of voices underscores a growing sense of underlying urgency.  As Leo greets his mother, Ellen Burstyn, his aunt, Faye Dunaway, and cousin, a stunningly gorgeous dark haired Charlize Theron as Erica, the energy carries them to a nightclub where Willie wants to show off his girlfriend Erica in a dance sequence bathed in red, which grows ecstatic to the gyrating, rhythmic music of Bellini - Samba De Janeiro - YouTube  (2:48), which matches the frenetic mood of Willie who quickly gets in a jealous fight when a guy tries dancing with his girl.  From the outset, territorial boundaries are set, like neighborhoods or families or contracts, where men are willing to do battle in order to protect these invisible lines, where the perception is this is all they’ve got.      

In order to make up for the troubles he’s caused his mother, Leo intends to go straight, but all he knows are the ways of the streets, where he immediately falls back into the same crowd that got him into trouble in the first place.  He goes to see his uncle Frank, brilliantly played by James Caan as if he was the reincarnation of Sonny Corleone given a new chance at life, the guy who now runs the railway contracts, where he explains “If it's on a train or a subway, we make it or we fix it.”  But Frank is hesitant to involve his nephew in the dirty business and tries to steer him straight, but Willie who works for Frank will have none of that, believing there’s plenty of cash to go around, so he starts involving Leo in some of the petty graft, which involves the police, train employees and the local politicians, where it appears everyone is on the take.  Since this well-oiled system is so entrenched in local business practices, who is Leo to suggest it’s wrong?  This is perfectly underscored at a family dinner, where Frank is surprised Leo’s working with Willie, who is basically his bag man, the guy who pays off all the bribes and keeps everyone happy, but he accepts the situation when the women at the table start wondering what’s wrong with Leo working with Willie, since they’re such good friends?  Rather than a typical crime drama where the bad guys are clearly identified by their gun toting violence, this gets underneath the workings of a civilized society where everything is operating under the natural order of business, and when it’s family, everyone looks out for everyone else’s interests.  The character of Frank is actually inspired by Gray’s own father who was involved in a train racketeering scandal from the 80’s.   

This is an exceptional crime film that underplays and nearly eliminates macho dialogue but does place most of the interior scenes in dimly lit rooms that are nearly engulfed in shadows, where Phoenix especially wears the darkness around him like a garment, where his haunting close ups have an especially eerie feel to them.  Howard Shore chooses very sparingly to use grave, ultra dramatic music, adapting the dark and gloomy mood of Saturn from Gustav Holst’s The Planets. Based on the title, it’s inevitable that the most significant scene in the film takes place in the railroad yards, where Willie and a small group routinely damage railroad cars, which steers repair business to Frank, so he brings along Leo, thinking what harm can come of it?  But all hell breaks loose when a yardmaster refuses to play along, which sends everything spiraling out of control.  Leo gets fingered for something he didn’t do and he’s forced to go into hiding, once more taking the rap.  But on parole, he’s not afforded a second chance, so he either has to come clean or disappear.  The brain trust of the family operation works overtime on this one, as rather than someone they can simply get rid of, this is one of their own.  The moral lines are drawn, but everyone is in a quandary.  There’s a calm intelligence and seductive beauty to the way this movie is filmed, right down to the plentiful family meals, the accuracy of the speech inflections, the backroom negotiations playing out at supposedly public meetings, and the use of seedy locations, where Wahlberg’s role is reminiscent of Brando in ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), but he plays it with more quiet reserve, continually expanding his emotional range.  Erica has a spectacularly moving sequence with her stepfather Frank which could literally be an outtake from THE GODFATHER, while sisters Burstyn and Dunaway provide family cohesion with trust and believability.  The performances throughout are simply masterful and cannot be underestimated, as this has the despairing air and undignified feel of people being trapped by the system.

A NOTE OF WARNING - -  it should be pointed out that this film was originally shot in 'Scope, yet the Blu-Ray DVD releases have inexplicably been released in a 1:78 aspect ratio, compromising the look of the film, where the cinematography is one of the more stunning aspects of the film.  Quoting from this Amazon review written by purplefigment:

This is a product review for 'The Yards' Blu-ray release by Echo Bridge Entertainment.

Heads up that this 'The Yards' [Blu-ray] release (and additionally the 'The Yards' / 'The Lookout' (Miramax Double Feature) [Blu-ray]) from Echo Bridge Entertainment is heavily compromised (as are most everything released from their Miramax/Dimension Films partnership so far).

- It has been modified to fit your screen (because modified full screen releases were the best ideas from the VHS/DVD days) with 1.78:1 aspect ratio instead of its original intended 2.39:1 aspect ratio and of below average quality even then.

- It has had its audio mix downgraded from its original 5.1 track to 2.0.

- It is missing the extras that were available on its previous DVD release.

Consider the previous Director's Cut Miramax Collector's Series DVD release (never a good sign when the DVD equals or surpasses a Blu-ray release in areas), The Yards - Director's Cut (Miramax Collector's Series). That DVD release is in its intended aspect ratio, 5.1 audio track and contains numerous extras. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Descendants

THE DESCENDANTS                        B+                  
USA  (115 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Alexander Payne                  Official site

One of Payne’s better films, where the spaciousness of his canvas is particularly appealing, as the Hawaiian setting here is idyllic, certainly a change of pace from the rat race of our normal lives, where we should be so lucky to have these kinds of inheritance problems, but one wonders what the infatuation is for lifestyles of the super wealthy, which seems to be an American and European fascination at the moment while the reflective economies are in a terrible downturn - - see von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA (2011), Almodóvar’s THE SKIN I LIVE IN (2011), Assayas’s SUMMER HOURS (2008) or Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011).  Based on an adapted screenplay from a novel by native Hawaiian Kaui Hart Hemmings, who herself has a role as Clooney’s secretary, the story concerns the coexistence of natives and whites in modern day Hawaiian society, suggesting they bear a responsibility in deciding what to do with the original lands of the indigenous past while also cultivating a need for development in a rapidly changing modern society.  Apparently large amounts of land continue to be held in trusts that were set up more than a century ago by the families of Hawaiian royalty.  Under a law called the rule of perpetuities, individuals, as opposed to charitable organizations, have until a specific date to act upon these trusts.  This is a backdrop for the story of Matt King (George Clooney), the hapa-haole (half-white) heir of a prominent Hawaiian landowning family that married into 25,000 acres of unspoiled land 150 years ago that now stands to make a bundle if they agree to sell off their shares.  However, much of what makes Hawaii so uniquely gorgeous has disappeared beneath a blitz of high end housing development for more hotels, condominiums, and luxury resorts, the kind of thing that makes a few people very wealthy at the expense of the pristine beauty of the island.  Many of the same questions were raised by Olivier Assayas’s SUMMER HOURS, where the heirs of the French aristocracy were too busy in their impersonalized modern lives to concern themselves with their family or the nation’s legacy, forgetting how influenced they were in their own childhoods by their seemingly unlimited and unending cultural access.    

Payne has crafted an irreverent but very low key approach that follows flawed yet original characters, highlighted by Clooney’s beautifully understated performance, a guy that appears out of nowhere to suddenly take an interest in the family he’s otherwise neglected for his own business adventures through the years.  However he’s called into action due to the medical emergency of his wife who ends up in a coma from a boating accident.  When her condition is not expected to improve, he’s forced to confront his two daughters, Shailene Woodley as Alexandra and Amara Miller as Scottie, both offering spirited performances, showing unusual range of expression without falling into the typical family cliché’s.  King also has to contact the friends and extended family at the same time he’s considering what to do about the family trust.  His lifelong retreat behind the safety net of complacency is suddenly called into question, made even worse when his daughter reveals her mother was having an affair.  Like a house on fire, King has to decide what’s worth saving and what he has to let go.  Quiet and surprisingly tender, there’s a healthy dose of humor mixed with pathos wrapped up in the tragic circumstances, where the revelations slowly reveal themselves and only grow more poignant, becoming more personalized with the growth of the characters.  While it’s first and foremost a family drama, one can’t help but see the broader implications and how it reaches into the lives of all Hawaiian citizens.  King understands many resent his inability to connect to his indigenous past, yet he’s the one that stands to make millions from land that never actually belonged to him or his family, but was entrusted to a vision of an idealized Hawaiian future.    
With brief autobiographical narration from King, what’s intriguing about his character is that he continues to play someone who is himself still developing into the person he is becoming, changing skins, making room for adjustments, experiencing a myriad of emotions from anger, confusion, sadness, the loss of parental authority, to suddenly finding himself alone without a partner, where he has to come to terms with his wife’s betrayal of her own family, all told in a tone that mixes humor with heartache.  Payne carefully sprinkles the family with notable eccentrics, but also shows the serious family portraits that have been hanging on the walls for generations.  Raising questions about assimilation and cultural identity, all of the music in the film comes from Hawaiian artists, where one was even written by Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last queen.  The director never intends to overwhelm the viewer and refuses to resort to stylistic tricks of the trade, but infuses knowledge with the setting, where the audience is treated to an overview of the family legacy, plush green cliffs with plenty of vegetation overlooking the white sands of an undeveloped beach, a place that has remained as is for literally thousands of years, a portrait of everlasting perfection.  The natural beauty is an interesting contrast to the pervasive sadness of the story, which features a woman dying, who’s already been declared brain dead and has left instructions to remove all life support.  Despite all the unique twists that make you think otherwise, this is a horribly downbeat story that has a sobering effect on everyone, a wake up call that suggests this could be anyone, that life is short, that we have an obligation to rethink our lives in the truest, most moral sense and reconnect with those that matter the most to us.  Fortune may be intertwined with fate, but the choices and direction of our lives still belongs to us and we should never betray that most precious gift.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


BEGINNERS              A-                   
USA  (105 mi)  2010  d:  Mike Mills                Beginners  (official site)

Our good fortune allowed us to feel the sadness our parents never had time for.                
—Oliver Fields (Ewen McGregor)

Apart from everything else this is, it’s definitely a Los Angeles movie, and one of the better ones at that, using uniquely chosen natural settings offering such a positive view of the city, making excellent use of the distant skyline that of course includes the unsightliness of hovering smog while also using many interior shots of the Los Angeles County Art Museum.  But most importantly, from the opening shot, there’s a gorgeous home with a beautiful garden and big glass windows furnishing that perfect view of the city off in the distance.  It’s the kind of place one would like to call home, but immediately the narrator, Ewen McGregor as Oliver, indicates this is the room where his father died, which sets the backstory in motion, told almost entirely through flashbacks.  Apparently based on the director’s own personal experience, Mills has crafted a loving portrait of his father, Christopher Plummer, who announces he is gay at the age of 75 just after Oliver’s mother dies.  It has a kind of Buddhist spirituality about it, as it apparently took his mother’s death to allow the inner life of her husband to blossom, as he finally discovers a joy in life like never before with parties, dancing, and newfound friends, and even a much younger lover Andy (Goran Visnjic).  This picture of uninhibited happiness is a complete turnaround from the era of living in a closet, which Oliver knew nothing about until this recent revelation.  Through the use of family photos, still shots, and campy magazine photos, Mills beautifully expresses each era through the embellishment of advertising, including car and smoking ads, showing people enjoying their leisure activity.  Oliver himself has a kind of stunted emotional growth, stuck somewhere between the eras, never quite understanding the complexity of his parent’s relationship, which is even more baffling to him in the present. 

Despite the kumbaya feel good story that seems destined for the typical upbeat, movie-of-the-week format, this film has quite a few surprises in store, one of which is frequently jumping back and forth through different time periods, while another is an Asta-like dog (from THE THIN MAN series of the 30’s) that has a limited human vocabulary, where Oliver can actually comprehend his subtitled thoughts.  Otherwise, Oliver leads an emotionally detached life where he observes his father’s outpourings of happiness almost as a tourist, as he’s there through it all, but doesn’t exactly know how to join in.  Prodded by his coworkers where Oliver works as a sketch artist, he reluctantly attends a party where he meets Mélanie Laurent as Anna, an actress with one of the most impressive opening appearances, surprising everyone with her openly flirtatious style that is easily one of the best performances of the year, as she literally steals every scene she’s in, and may even steal the movie that’s not even about her, as she’s initially a tangential character, but her chemistry with Oliver provides the fireworks that’s missing in his life.  Still, he’s lost in a fog about the memory of his father, wondering how his parents could keep pretending for all those years, doubting his own capacity for a long term relationship.  It’s this bristling honesty that may be the most pleasant surprise and the true revelation of the film, making the viewer feel like they’re actually experiencing something remarkable happening, as there are snippets of gay rights history thrown in that allow people to reflect upon how love was expressed generations ago when it had to remain a closely guarded secret. 

One of the other delicious surprises is Oliver’s mother, Mary Page Keller, who due to the passionless circumstances with her husband decides to make Oliver her pet project by introducing him to age inappropriate material with unbridled relish, where she seems to be having a blast onscreen.  Oliver, on the other hand, is flabbergasted by this overtly scandalous treatment, embarrassed by his mother’s ultra liberated, free spirited style, eventually driving him to the obscure safety of that button down conservative that he is today.  But Anna shows those same sparks, another fiercely individualistic force of nature that literally defies belief, yet Oliver hesitates, as he’s done his entire life.  In fact, McGregor may hold the entire picture back, as perhaps he doesn’t wish to overstep what amounts to the director’s own personal life story, so remains something of a blank canvas waiting for life to color him in.  As is, he remains the odd man out in his own movie, something of a wet blanket, as his father, mother, girlfriend, and even his dog outshine him in every respect, where they couldn’t be more artfully crafted and intensely appealing characters onscreen. 

It’s a little like his role in I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS (2009), where he is rather tame and conventional in comparison to the ever cheerful but boldly outlandish Jim Carrey.  In each instance, you wonder if he’s worth the adoration the other characters pour on him.  He was so much better in the outrageously garish musical production that is MOULIN ROUGE (2001) and the downbeat existential ménage a trois in YOUNG ADAM (2003), as in each we felt we were literally inhabiting his skin.  Here he is stuck in the center of the universe, but it’s the stars and planets aligned around him that shine so much brighter. The mistake is always thinking we’re the center instead of just one of the movable parts.  Perhaps what prevents us from recognizing love is a psychologically imposed barrier of self-doubt, a kind of delusion that always leads to failure, where true love necessitates that you push aside that trap of self preservation and wholly trust that something better awaits you.  This is a film that never quite grasps the secret to lasting relationships other than insisting that fears and misunderstandings and other forks in the road are real, where from Oliver’s point of view, there is an open but still undiscovered path, but from Anna’s, there’s some question as to what she sees in Oliver in the first place, perhaps wondering why Oliver’s mother stayed in such an emotionally unfulfilled marriage for so long, questions that remain unanswered.  What we discover then is that we’re not ready for answers yet, that we’re not at that all important commitment threshold, but, as the title suggests, still in a feeling out and the getting to know you stage, in the throes of something they as yet barely comprehend.    

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Bobby Fischer Against the World

BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD                  B-                   
USA  Great Britain  Iceland  (93 mi)  2010  d:  Liz Garbus             Official site
Coming up, the latest news on the Watergate investigation. But first, Bobby Fischer.
 —CBS TV News intro, 1972

The director appears to have been inspired in making the film with the death of Bobby Fischer in 2008, who re-appeared tragically after the events of  9/11 spewing venom against the United States, still smarting from the bitterness against the nation that exiled him only a decade earlier for playing an international chess match in a nation (Yugoslavia) that in 1992 was undergoing a Civil War, violating a United Nations embargo at the time, where the United States Treasury Department under the elder President Bush announced it would arrest him if he returned to America, subject to ten years in prison and a $200,000 fine, making him a fugitive from justice for playing chess.  What’s agonizingly clear is that Bobby Fischer was not a well man near the end of his life, where the obsessive drive that compelled him to become to world’s greatest chess player also caused him to behave erratically afterwards, developing paranoid symptoms about various world conspiracies, including a rabid anti-Semitic steak that was troubling, basically driving away anyone who came near, perceiving himself as a castaway adrift in the universe with no place to call home.  Without chess as the driving force in his life, he became less focused on the real world, allowing himself to become a strict loner and an outcast fading into obscurity.  The film never delves into the acute cause of Fischer’s affliction, with an IQ of 180, most likely symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, not at all uncommon for mathematically minded people and particularly evident with those that suffer from severe emotional neglect early in their lives, where autism, for instance, is six times more likely in children from orphanages.  Many of the earlier segments of his life appear hastily filled in afterwards and left incomplete, but Fischer was left alone a great deal in his youth as his mother was working several jobs. 

Perhaps one stroke of genius in this film is an opening segment that shows Fischer’s rapid rise to prominence in the chess world becoming the youngest American chess champion at the age of 15, scored to the funky electric guitar swagger from SHAFT (1971) that gives this a feeling of a triumphant victory march as Fischer knocks off all the Russian contenders on his way to qualifying for the finals of the World Chess Championship in 1972, a sport dominated by Russians since the end of World War II, who consider this their national sport subsidized by the State, receiving plenty of money and support along the way where the leading chess players are treated to the comforts of the highest standard of living available in the nation, where players have staffs of coaches to assist them in their preparations.  In America, especially for a young Jewish kid raised by a single mom in Brooklyn, he was basically all on his own, largely self-taught, but the picture of cool as he steamrolls his way through all the American competition as well as the best the Russians could throw at him until he reaches the finals with the Russian Champion, Boris Spassky, who he had never played before.  The two nations treated this like an Olympic event, as if it reflects upon their national pride, where the interest raised by the stunning, heretofore unheard of brilliance of the young contender Bobby Fischer was unheard of, as he awakened the world’s interest to a game few actually understood, where the use of military tactics in a board game during the height of the Cold War sparked an immediate nationalistic identification with the outcome, especially where the use of mental alertness to stave off any and all possible strategies is the key to success. 

To this day, Fischer is a legendary figure whose reputation has attained mythical status around the world, much like a living super hero, as he single handedly defied all odds to accomplish what no one else in the world had ever achieved all on their own.  According to Russian champion Garry Kasparov in The Bobby Fischer Defense, "Fischer played every game to the death, as if it were his last.  It was this fighting spirit that his contemporaries recall most about him as a chess player."  Even when rising to the occasion, Fischer was continually fighting his own personal demons as well, where he’d always find little distractions that might cause him to overreact to such an extent that he’d simply leave the match altogether, something he had done plenty of times before, but never at this level.  Yet it was nearly impossible to get these two chess combatants to actually sit down and play, where Fischer actually forfeited the second game by not showing up at all.  This kind of hyper-sensitivity to the smallest distractions of any kind is the sort of thing that kept escalating in his life long after the important matches were over.  This film is reminiscent of the Bobby Fischer of the classical piano, seen in Peter Raymont and Michèle Hozer’s GENIUS WITHIN: THE INNER LIFE OF GLENN GOULD (2010), where pianist Gould suffered from many of the same paranoid maladies, becoming overly controlling, retreating from the world and practicing his artistry in complete isolation, but where he similarly took the world by storm in a two week concert tour of Russia in the mid 50’s which was still recovering from the repressive effects of Stalin.  In each instance, they both became beloved figures instantly, largely because they expressed so much passion in the way they played, where their brash individuality and brilliant technique were unparalleled, exactly what led the world to Fischer’s own uncompromising genius in the 1970’s.  The Gould film was actually a more lovingly crafted portrait, as he was a man who found love and joy in his life alongside his art, leading a more balanced life, while Fischer was plagued by inner demons his entire life, who through sheer will power during his twenties overcame their effects with simply astonishing results, but without the game to take his mind off his eccentricities, where paranoia about potential moves on the board is actually an acquired chess skill, the illness simply devoured his rational thought, leaving him beleaguered, continually annoyed with others, unhappy and alone.

Into the Abyss

INTO THE ABYSS                       B               
USA  Germany  Canada  (107 mi)  2011  d:  Werner Herzog

What starts out as one of the best Herzog films in years, a taut police procedural where Herzog and his cameras follow a police officer as he retraces the scenes of a triple murder, where he slowly and with careful consideration builds a case against the two 19-year old perpetrators, Michael James Perry and Jason Burkett, who in 2001 went on a drug and alcohol binge in Conroe, Texas, senselessly killing three persons in their desperate attempt to steal a car they wanted, a flashy red 1997 Camaro, which they openly drove in the nearby town of Cut and Shoot for less than a week until they were captured in a shootout with police, using the stolen identification from the murdered victims.  Despite the riveting details, their significance takes on a life of their own when we discover one of the murderers is scheduled for execution within a week.  While both were tried separately, Herzog never makes clear why only one is chosen for execution, an unrepentant Perry who going all the way back to the first grade had a history of untreated mental illness which eventually became known as “antisocial personality disorder” (which was NOT mentioned in the film), while the other is given a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 40 years.  Their murderous spree is reminiscent of Truman Capote’s chilling account documented in the book and movie IN COLD BLOOD (1967), where the dimwitted Perry reminds viewers of Robert Blake, where killing someone was a way of proving his barely developed manhood, an act that resonates with utter incomprehensibility.  But rather than dig deeper into the psychological implications of the crime or the criminals involved, Herzog changes the focus entirely, basically preaching his own message that the death penalty is no deterrent to those who commit senseless murders like these.     

This is a double-edged sword with differing results, for as long as Herzog sticks to the criminal acts themselves and the horrible impact the murders continue to have on the victim’s family, marching out family members who couldn’t be more haunted by the deaths, the film remains vividly intense and real, but when he sticks in his own message that God or Jesus would not be advocating on behalf of capital punishment, he’s changing the nature of the game midstream, not only lessening the impact of compelling human footage, some of which is superb, but also showing a bit of bad taste by undermining the sincerity of those who chose to speak their minds on camera, some with obvious difficulty, as this pervasive theme was not their message, but is editorializing by the filmmaker.  Herzog interviews a remorseful prison Chaplin who recalls the difficulty of walking the final few steps with death row inmates, while also observing the prison graveyard, a makeshift plot of ground filled with crosses and no names, containing only the inmate prison numbers.  In the State of Texas, 473 inmates have been executed since 1982 with another 334 awaiting their turn on death row.  One of the more convincing testimonials comes from Fred Allen, former chief guard at the “death house” of the Huntsville State Penitentiary, a man who accompanied over 125 inmates to their deaths by lethal injection, a routine that took its personal toll when he was asked to walk a female inmate to her death, leaving him traumatized afterwards, where the sheer number of executions for one man to supervise leaves an unfathomable psychological impact that cannot be measured.  Allen eventually quit his job, costing him his lifetime pension, adding that while he was once an ardent advocate in favor of capitol punishment, he now believes the death penalty is no deterrent whatsoever to preventing crime. 
What’s perhaps most surprising is that the State of Texas would allow access “inside” their prison system, even allowing footage of the death chamber.  Herzog was allowed access to the condemned prisoner a week before his scheduled execution, where he had about a half hour to interview Michael James Perry, who still looks and behaves like a kid, a guy with no comprehension whatsoever of what he did, who still insists he has nothing to do with the crimes and that the State is making a terrible mistake.  What’s clear is that the State of Texas chose a case where the evidence is irrefutable, where there is simply no dispute over whether Perry was present at the murder scenes.  What’s nightmarish about his case is that he has the brain of an eight year old kid.  Many of those interviewed reveal they have little to no education, where the common factor is the community has barely risen above illiteracy, where stories of senseless deaths are common, where some have learned how to read while in prison.  Jason Burkett’s father is also in prison serving time for his second murder, where he’s strangely found religion while incarcerated, serving out his own 40 year sentence.  He gets emotional when asked to reflect upon his impact on his family, where he has to confess he feels like an utter failure.  But perhaps the most loopy individual is Melyssa, who along with her father comprise the defense team for Jason Burkett, who eventually wrote letters and fell in love with him, inspired by the sight of a rainbow seen stretching from outside to inside the prison after her first visit with Burkett, a sign that in her eyes proves his innocence, eventually becoming his wife and now bearing his child.  It seems Herzog can’t help himself sometimes, as he gets sidetracked by the crazy antics shown by many of the colorful individuals involved, losing his focus on the seriousness of the original story, which he calls "a gaze into the abyss of the human soul," instead becoming enthralled by how amusing many of the characters are captured on film, where what’s fascinating and largely unexplored is what a significant role poverty and lack of education play throughout this small town community.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


MELANCHOLIA                                C                    
Denmark  Sweden  France  Germany  (135 mi)  2011  'Scope  d:  Lars von Trier

Don’t miss the opening ten minutes, a wordless slow-mo montage set to the Prelude orchestral music of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, seen in its entirety here:  Melancholia Prologue on YouTube (7:46), as it’s filled with the most dramatic shots of the film, all of which set the apocalyptic tone of gloom and doom which dominate this film, as an approaching star named Melancholia is veering toward the earth’s orbit, but scientists expect it to pass by without interference or harm.  Shot in ‘Scope with a mix of digital and 35 mm imagery by Manuel Alberto Claro, most all of it taking place at a single location, a mammoth estate in Västra Götaland County in Sweden that resembles the grounds of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961), a sign of the upper echelons of the aristocracy.  After an opening Prologue, the film is divided in two parts, each representing the state of mind of two sisters, Kristen Dunst as Justine and Charlotte Gainsbourg as Claire.  Justine arrives on the scene as the bride in her full wedding regalia with the groom in tow, both in the throes of love as they experience a comically absurd sequence where it’s near impossible for the driver to park a stretch limo.  This moment of levity is interrupted by the severity expressed from her late arrival where she’s apparently missed the first several hours of the world’s most expensive and elaborately planned wedding, by Udo Kier of course as the wedding planner, who after awhile refuses to even look at the bride as she’s completely ruined his wedding.  Justine can’t seem to focus and continually wanders off, throwing the timing off, forcing guests to continually wait, where Claire and her husband John, Kiefer Sutherland, who’s paying for it all, grow more irate by the minute, as they feel embarrassed by the apparent indifference of the bride.  Nonetheless, despite Claire’s continual interference, supposedly reminding her sister of her social obligations, Justine just never gets the hang of it, and her more casual air doesn’t match the growing mood of annoyance and frazzled nerves, especially from Justine’s unhappily separated parents, the equally carefree John Hurt dangling two women named Betty on his arm, and the contemptuous view of her domineering mother, Charlotte Rampling, who hates weddings in general and is not afraid to express her misanthropic views. 

The man in the middle of this apparent wedding from hell is Alexander Skarsgård as Michael, the groom, a perfectly charming and innocent young man who’s thrilled at the idea of being married to Justine, though, as the night goes on, he learns he really doesn’t know her at all.  When the father of the groom, Stellan Skarsgård, makes a perfectly odious speech about his preference between his son’s happiness and his own business success, he quite naturally chooses the success of his business, which simply stakes his claim as the biggest egoist in the room.  There’s plenty of behind the scenes nastiness, especially when Justine has had enough and simply tells off the father-in-law that he’s an imbecile whose arrogance is despicable, where he and his family, again with the groom in tow, quickly exit the premises.  One guesses this may all blow over by the morning, but it doesn’t, as the sisters, for days, weeks, or even months afterwards, continue to inhabit the immense grounds, which is located on a golf course.  Never once throughout this ordeal is anyone ever seen actually playing golf at this ultra exclusive country estate.  Only afterwards is there a suggestion that Justine suffers from depression, which really isn’t remotely suggested during the wedding party itself, where instead the idea of a perfect day where she's supposed to be happy is literally forced upon her, leaving her bewildered and in a state of confusion and mixed emotions, where in the aftermath she simply lies around unable to get out of bed.  Sometime later, as the film switches to the other sister, with the mysterious planet moving ever closer, Claire is openly suspicious about the possibilities of what could happen when Melancholia passes near the earth.  John, however, considers himself something of a science expert, who’s continually looking up at the star in his telescope, sharing the moment with his young son, and can barely contain his enthusiasm at this priceless moment, knowing all scientific experts have predicted the star will simply pass by, allowing an unheard of opportunity for skywatchers.   

The mood in the second segment grows more broodingly intense, as Claire becomes more unsettled at the thought of potential doom, despite her husband’s calming speeches to the contrary, she still has her suspicions, made all the more ominous by the abnormal behavior of animals, especially their horses that won’t sit still in their stalls, whinnying and remaining restlessly agitated throughout the day and night.  While Claire grows more hysterical, especially for the life of her son, it’s Justine that develops a calmly fatalistic attitude, sensing the end is near, claiming she knows life in the universe exists only on earth and it’s about to come to an end where no one will notice its absence.  Her ease in accepting impending doom is in stark contrast to her panic ridden sister, where the sisters seem to represent opposite ends of the distressed mood spectrum, but it’s all displayed with heightened melodrama that reeks of excess, especially from Gainsbourg, where the director continues to flood the theater with the neverending sounds of Wagner, a monotonously repetitive theme of gloom that drives the point home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, as we’ve obviously gotten the point, but is that all there is?  Is this a one-note drama?  All we ever see are the few lives that remain on these massive grounds, where the spacious emptiness is substantial, as all the other people in the world are missing, as no one else is ever seen, as if these are the last humans on earth.  There is no radio, television, Internet news, phone calls, no sirens blaring, nothing to connect these life forms to anyone else on earth, and all this is before anything happens.  Dunst, who won the Best Actress Award at Cannes is good, but nothing special, where the ominous atmospheric mood is substantial, as the director contemplates a scenario where the human race and planet earth are on the verge of collapse from a mysteriously off course star that appears out of nowhere.  Obviously anything’s possible, but this is a bewildering climax that is overly hyped and pre-ordained from the opening prologue, so there’s little mounting tension or suspense.  Judging from the blasé evidence of life shown in the two or so hours onscreen, there is little sustained human drama that makes this feel in any way memorable.   

Monday, November 14, 2011

J. Edgar

J. Edgar Hoover, 1961

J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant Clyde Tolson sitting in beach lounge chairs, 1939

J. EDGAR                    C-                   
USA  (137 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Clint Eastwood

I am…a revolutionary.                       
—Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party, murdered by an FBI raid

What is overlooked here is how FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the most powerful police organization in the country, was so compelled by his reactionary beliefs to continually violate the law himself, even resort to murder in order to, in his views, protect American citizens when pursuing Black Panthers in the late 60’s, as evidenced by the December 4, 1969 assassination of Party Chairman Fred Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark in Chicago, including a cover up of the police actions, claiming they were firing in self-defense in a dawn 4:30 am FBI raid into Hampton’s private residence, supposedly to serve a warrant for a weapons violation.  According to a forensics report, 99 bullets were found entering the apartment from the outside, while only 1 bullet was ever fired from inside, hardly the barrage of “an onslaught of bullets” reported by the police to justify their actions. 

All the Chicago officers on the Hampton raid were vindicated, where only after a period of ten years were they finally held responsible for violating Hampton’s civil rights.  Over the course of time, this also led to the FBI revelations that they actually directed the State’s Attorney’s raid, based on diagrams provided by FBI informant William O’Neal, who was paid $30,000 by the FBI and was Hampton’s bodyguard, the man who actually provided the exact location of Fred Hampton’s bed, which was the target of the majority of the police bullets.  An autopsy also revealed that there were barbiturates found in Hampton’s stomach, who was known to be ardently drug and alcohol free, suggesting he was drugged the night before by O’Neal, who served him kool-aid and hot dogs the night before, corroborating the testimony of Hampton’s girl friend in the apartment who claimed he did not respond and remained groggy throughout the raid, only lifting his head an inch or so off the bed before he was shot and killed. 

Black Panthers were targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI watch list as public enemy number one, calling them "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country," infiltrated by informants, oftentimes black police officers, and eventually the entire organization nationwide was hunted down and targeted for arrest and/or death “by any means necessary,” to borrow a phrase of the Panthers organization themselves.  Bobby Hutton of the Oakland branch was killed, Eldridge Cleaver fled the country, Huey P. Newton was arrested for manslaughter, H. Rap Brown for murder, and one by one the leaders were taken out in a secret FBI spy operation against American citizens called COINTELPRO that was only uncovered years later under the Freedom of Information Act.  By 1970, 34 known Panthers were dead as a result of police raids and shoot-outs, while the rising costs of legal fees eventually ended the existence of the Black Panther Party.  Hoover and his organization have never been held accountable for their own criminal illegality, which is why there continues to be a major distrust factor of police in black communities.  Informant William O'Neal eventually threw himself into the lanes of the Eisenhower expressway, committing suicide on Martin Luther King Day in 1990.  There is no mention of any of this in the film, which also neglects to mention Hoover's active contribution to the Red Scare McCarthyist Era of the 1950's. 

The film does show that from December 1963 until his death in 1968, the FBI wiretapped the phones of Reverand Martin Luther King Jr, claiming that one of King's closest advisers, Stanley Levison, a white New York lawyer and businessman, was a top-level member of the American Communist Party.  As it turned out Levison had extensive ties with the Communist Party in the 40’s and 50’s but departed from the organization by the time he met King in the early 60’s.  Nonetheless, a wiretap was ordered on October 10, 1963 making Martin Luther King Jr. the target of an intensive campaign by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to “neutralize” him as an effective civil rights leader.  The FBI campaign to discredit and destroy Dr. King was marked by extreme personal vindictiveness, where as early as 1962 Hoover himself penned an FBI memorandum, “King is no good,” claiming Dr. King was “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” Shortly afterwards in 1963, Time magazine chose Dr. King as the “Man of the Year,” and later in 1964 he won the Nobel peace prize, an honor which elicited Hoover's comment that “they had to dig deep in the garbage to come up with this one,” calling Dr. King the “most notorious liar” in the country.

The FBI scrutinized Dr. King's tax returns, monitored his sexual and financial affairs, and even tried to establish that he had a secret foreign bank account.  Religious leaders and institutions were contacted in an effort to undermine their support of him, and unfavorable material was “leaked” to the press. Bureau officials contacted members of Congress, and special “off the record” testimony was prepared for Hoover's use before the House Appropriations Committee.  Efforts were made to turn White House and Justice Department Officials against Dr. King by barraging them with unfavorable reports and, according to one witness, even offering to play for a White House official explicit sex tape recordings that the Bureau considered embarrassing to King, tapes that just happened to be delivered to Dr. King with threats of greater public exposure the night before his Nobel prize speech.  Despite extensive surveillance, the FBI was never able to portray King as a dangerous radical or find any direct funding or other links between King and the Communist party.

This film, easily one of the ugliest looking films ever seen (in more ways than one), written by Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote MILK (2008), is largely taken from Hoover’s own 1972 memoirs which he dictates throughout the film accentuating a more tender side of Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio in a horrible accent, not just a ruthless, powerful man in America who rose to the directorship of the FBI from 1935 until his death in 1972.  It was only after he died that America learned Hoover was a cross dresser, a closet homosexual, who may have repressed his lifelong love affair with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), the Associate Director of the FBI from 1930 until just after Hoover died in 1972, the man who inherited Hoover’s estate after he died, which amounted to a little more than half a million dollars and Hoover’s home.  Ironically Hoover was outspoken against homosexuality and refused to allow gays, women, and very few blacks to become FBI agents, and in fact spread defamatory false rumors that Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson was gay.  And while these personal revelations may be salaciously interesting, they prove to be something of a distraction, and pure speculation, where adding a vulnerable and more humanized dimension to his personality, a secretly repressed love affair that Hoover never publicly acknowledged during his lifetime, and for which there is no corroborating evidence, has a way of diverting attention away from the corrupt ruthlessness in which he ran his office, known for blackmailing Presidents, threatening to expose and ruin the careers of anyone who would dare attempt to challenge him, surviving largely unscathed in his own personal domain as head of the FBI, remaining outside of public scrutiny for 37 years, collecting and consolidating power in his office long after a series of Presidents came and went. 

Placing the focus on Hoover’s love life takes away from the fact that this man singlehandedly destroyed lives throughout his lifetime, altering the possibilities of social change in history, where the damage he caused in arrests, murder, and intimidation was far greater than that of any terrorist, where he was the man in charge of all the slimy, underhanded dirty tricks and lies, which Hoover felt was far more effective than the truth, used to undermine the reputations and public effectiveness of others, yet he remained in charge of the nation’s highest law officers, continuing to collect information that he could use “against” others in his own private crusade on public decency, an unchecked monster that himself became that threat to the internal security of our nation, an embarrassing stain in the nation’s history that this film steers clear of because Hoover led the fight against Communism in America and continues to be lauded in right wing circles as a patriot.  A dull and drab Clint Eastwood movie that fictionalizes certain aspects of his life is no substitute for the real thing, which would be an exposé that reveals the truth about just what the man was responsible for in his lifetime, revealing all the skeletons in the closet.  Despite modernizing crime fighting technology, such as creating a centralized fingerprint file and forensic laboratories, he also used the FBI to harass political dissenters and activists, to amass secret files on political leaders, and routinely used illegal methods to collect evidence.  There were no Black Panthers and no one from the King family offering their views on how this lone man dedicated his life to work tirelessly not only to discredit the hopes and dreams of others and the movements they advocated, but ultimately he vowed to literally destroy lives.  In 2001, Nevada Senator Harry Reid sponsored an amendment to strip Hoover's name from the FBI Headquarters named after him in Washington, D.C. claiming “J. Edgar Hoover's name on the FBI building is a stain on the building,” however the Senate never adopted the amendment.