Il Postino: The Postman
Directed by Michael Radford
Starring Philippe Noiret, Massimo Troisi, and Maria Grazia Cucinotta
If you don’t like this film, fuck you.
Amazingly, that’s about all I’ve got to say on the topic. What an amazing stroke of luck I’ve had, in setting up this program, that I’ve been able to give myself a chance to be exposed to this forgotten gem. The movie was basically made for me: relatively short, focused on a small handful of interesting characters, light enough to pass as a comedy yet touching on themes of identity, political strife, and the role of art in society. An Academy which would elevate Braveheart over this is a demonstrably sick one, which was clearly the case after the bloodbath the year before (finally up for full discussion next week!) and strikes me as far more tragic than the bittersweet conclusion of this film.
When I first put together the Almost Oscars itinerary, I came across Il Postino (translated and marketed as The Postman in the United States) for the first time in my life. I was dimly aware of Braveheart, and had seen Babe and Apollo 13 at the base theater with my dad (it should be noted that I was six at the time). Perhaps this tiny Italian-produced film never showed up my tiny radar because the market for such films on Air Force bases in North Dakota isn’t that big. In any case, it was a stroke more interesting than the somewhat known quantity of my other option, Sense and Sensibility. We’ve done our time with Ang Lee already.
Il Postino is a fictional tale built around the real life political exile Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet and Marxist. While it is historical fact that he at one point lived on the island of Capri while travelling Europe, the rest of the film takes this well-trodden tale and uses it as the basis of a story. Mario Ruoppolo (Troisi) is the middle-aged son of a poor fisherman, living in the sort of picturesque Mediterranean cliff side village that inexplicably exists outside of postcards. He’s down on the idea of becoming a fisherman himself, but it’s not like the essentially pre-Industrial economy of the island intends to provide him other work. By chance, however, the post office of the island is looking for part time work. The job? Handle all incoming mail for the island’s new celebrity, Senor Neruda (Noiret) of Chile. Mario is told by his boss, a communist himself, that Neruda is a great man who deserves the utmost deference and respect. As these instructions are delivered to a wistful, somewhat restless bumpkin regarding one of the pre-eminent artists of the twentieth century, of course these instructions will be ground to dust by the film’s end.
Neruda lives some distance from the rest of the small town, requiring Mario to bicycle there. The first encounters between these two men are awkward, halting things that one would expect as two different worlds meet for the first time. Slowly, Mario begins to examine the works of Neruda as a way of striking up conversations. In doing so, he begins to examine his own life and motivations. This life examination finds expression when Mario meets a beautiful woman named Beatrice (Cucinotta), and shares his feelings and thoughts on the matter with Neruda. The relationship between the two slowly evolves from professional to instructional, and finally to a wonderfully unlikely friendship between a humble Italian postal worker and a world-renown poet and communist from Latin America.
That’s now how the story ends, which I shall ruin for you now. Neruda is eventually invited back to his home country (also true in the world we inhabit), leaving Mario alone with his new modes of expression and a stunningly beautiful wife. He misses his friend Pablo, and begins to work up the courage to write and share poetry. The coda has Senor Neruda returning to find Mario’s wife and young child in the village inn, only to be informed that Mario had been killed when police broke up a communist rally prior to the birth of his son. Mario had gone there to read a poem dedicated to Pablo. This rally is shown in black-and-white newsreel stock, reminiscent of the means by which Mario first learned that Neruda would first be coming to his tiny island. We are left with the site of Noiret standing on a beach, his back to the cliffs of the island, followed by poetry from the man he portrayed.
Uffda! I liked the ending, but it was quite sad. Now let’s add to that sadness by explaining that apparently twelve hours after the filming of Il Postimo, Troisi suffered a fatal heart attack in Rome. He had been postponing surgery to finish shooting the film. Radford (whose only other film I recognize is the John Hurt masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four) would thank Troisi in the credits of the film for his work, and the Academy even honored his memory with a posthumous Best Actor nomination. That Nicholas Cage won the award that year should only serve as proof of Alex Navarro’s working thesis that Cage is our greatest living actor.
I digress. Troisi’s name was not known to me prior to today, and I don’t intend to take a deep dive into his entire career. What I can say is that he delivered a very good performance as a muted, humble man from a small town, in the presence of a near-god. He was able to prevent humility from sliding into simplicity or caricature, instead coming off as a person going through an inner transformation within a strict socioeconomic context. His world is the same world as it always has been; what is changing is the lenses he uses to interpret it. That’s not an easy thing to convey to an audience, and Troisi does a particularly fine job at it. That he worked along with the director to adapt the screenplay also speaks to his mind as a filmmaker. If this is to be the world’s only way of getting to see Massimo Troisi, it can sleep soundly in the knowledge that the man was in top form here.
There are a handful of lumps, sure. Some of the editing in the film is pretty dodgy, with Lucas-esque dissolves for flashbacks and strange jump cuts between locations. There’s also something to say for annunciation, which feels strange as I am not an Italian speaker myself and required subtitles to enjoy the film in any capacity. Shitting on this film for those criticisms is the height of madness: Il Postino was all heart. Not a showy movie by any means, but an honest movie. Everything about it, from the film stock looking like it was about ten years old to the out-dated posters and DVD cover, all seem to be gently smiling at people like me who are stumbling into the movie for the first time. It politely says hello, and asks if you’d like to watch this little old movie that it is. Just a fantastic little experience.
WAS IT ANY GOOD? Hell yes. As charming a movie as you will ever see, Il Postino is a movie I’d share with anybody. Hell, it would be a great date film if you were reasonably sure the other party could handle the ending. Like A Serious Man (and when I say that, you should pay attention), the film reminds the viewer that you need nothing more than a good story to carry the film. You can ride out technical bumps, and even some dodgy performances (which this particular movie doesn’t have) if the story you are telling is good enough. This one is more than good enough, it’s stonking great by jove!
SHOULD IT HAVE WON? Why would you make me choose between this and Babe? Babe holds the distinction of being the last G-rated film to be nominated for Best Picture as of this year. In stark contrast to it, the wildly violent and overbearing Braveheart won. Parts of that film are pretty great, and I’m willing to separate the stupid shit in Mel Gibson’s personal life from his film career. Even with that said, I don’t see how the Academy managed to pass over both the greatest family film of the 1990s, and an excuse to pretend that they gave a shit about an obscure, dead Italian actor, for a three hour film with no award-worthy acting performances. Oh yeah, did I mention Braveheart won no awards for acting? That seems a little odd, right? Want to know the next film to pull off that feat? The Return of the King, aka the Seabiscuit killer.
FINALLY GONNA DO 1994 NEXT WEEK. That means I will, at long last, watch Pulp Fiction. We will get to the bottom of what, by many estimations, is the most important film of the entire decade and perhaps the biggest gut punch Hollywood received since 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. I am really looking forward to not having everybody and their grandmother act just amazed that somebody could have gone over twenty years without seeing Pulp Fiction, as if it should be some sort of inevitable function of being alive after some point in time. See ya next week!
- Multiple reviews should be happening next week. I’ll let you ponder that.
- In addition to those reviews, I have an impossibly important job interview next Friday. Getting that job could lead to one or two changes to the way this site works, which would be really cool.
- I’ve been looking into wrestling recently, to see what has happened in the twelve or so years that I’ve been out of the loop. To summarize, it has all sucked very badly.
Co-Written and Directed by Curtis Hanson
Starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, James Cromwell, and David Strathairn
This one’s a real banger, folks. Once it gets its little hooks into you, there is no way in hell you’re going to be getting up to do anything that isn’t watching this film weave its sordid tale of police corruption and brutality. I say this having experienced that, nearly burning some chicken I was baking for dinner after I finish this writeup. As it stands, the worst part of watching L.A. Confidential was that my chicken will be a little dry. That sounds like a sex thing!
L.A. Confidential marks the dramatic return of one James Cromwell, who we last encountered as Prince Philip, consort to the esteemed Helen Mirren in The Queen. And holy shit, could these roles be any different? Here he’s Los Angeles Police Department Captain Dudley Smith, a jaded fellow with no aversion to planting evidence or beating the piss out of people for any sort of confession. He is one of four men who carry this film; the others are young and idealistic Lieutenant Edmund Exley (Pierce), goodhearted but brutal Officer Bud White (Crowe), and Spacey as Sergeant Jack Vincennes. Now, Vincennes is the sort of cop who has all manner of connections. His biggest lead is the writer of tabloid Hush-Hush, played by DeVito with a sort of sneering, exploitative grotesque demeanor that is pitch perfect for the sort of story being told.
It should be mentioned at this juncture that the film was an adapted screenplay from the 1990 James Ellroy novel of the same name, and was as deserving of the Academy Award in that field as any film ever has been. I don’t want to spoil the plot of this film, because to do so would be to untangle this awesome pile of snakes which comprises it and to rob potential viewers of some pretty fabulous “gotcha” moments. At least one of these had me sitting slack-jawed, with both arms extended toward my television in “Holy fucking shit!” levels of surprise, disbelief, and joy for how brilliant the twist was. Especially clever people could probably suss out the biggest of these turns, but me? I’m a casual guy making a crock pot of chili, and am here to be entertained a bit. I don’t need to tell you guys that I’m smarter than the film, or more clever than the people who wrote this script; hell, people who have been reading this project for a while now should be well aware that I’m actually pretty damn dumb.
But I digress. A lot of the aforementioned twists and turns in the film move around the character Lynn Bracken, played by Kim Basinger. Due to what I understand to be film noir tropes, of course she’s a hooker with a heart of gold. But lo! the character has an arc! She has a personality, a back story, agency within her own life, and ultimately achieves her life goals by the end of the film. At no point while watching Basinger’s performance was I necessarily blown away, but it was rock solid. We’ll talk about the Best Supporting Actress bit later HINT WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT TITANIC LATER
So what makes this film magical? It’s so many little pieces! The use of period music in various scenes to describe the inner brain workings of characters is a great example of using licensed music to help tell a story; I love it when video games do this, and here it tickled the same part of my brainfruits. Seeing Crowe, Pierce, and Spacey go through personal transformations on screen was something to behold. Again, a lot of this was explained in lyrics to songs if at all, or with facial expressions and the use of carefully dramatic pauses that allow the audience to connect the dots that the characters are connecting. Each of them makes compromises to deeply held beliefs about professional behavior, and by the end they’ve managed to work against their character types to team up against a whole world of shit and bring it down. They grow and change, and ask questions larger than the scope of the story on screen.
The actual pacing of the script certainly helps out in all of this. Two hours and change fly past as we are shown, like the film’s Dragnet ripoff actors say, “just the facts” of the case. Nothing is necessarily withheld from the audience that they would need to piece together the puzzle which lies at the film’s center, and I feel like any fat that was in this film was stripped away to leave an incredibly tight, arresting piece of badassery. You get the sense that none of the characters like having their time wasted (particularly when Crowe nearly rips a man’s balls off…not a violent scene, but implicitly violent), and the film in turn doesn’t see the point in wasting yours.
I’m not going to waste any more of your time, either.
WAS IT ANY GOOD? YES. Within the scope of the Almost Oscars exercise, L.A. Confidential belongs in the same rarified air as the likes of There Will Be Blood and A Serious Man. It’s got fantastic writing, it’s dripping with style, features a number of fantastic performances from humans I enjoy watching on the screen, and stands out as something unique. Yes, parts of this film are hokey genre conventions, but that’s why you come to these films! You don’t get much more contrived than Danny DeVito narrating about the illusory grandeur of Los Angeles in the 1950s (which incidentally was the setting for part of another great film) over stock footage of chintzy postwar American stock footage, and this film knows that. It’s a fun, smart film, and I’m glad I got to watch it at last.
SHOULD IT HAVE WON? Yes, the poor bastard. Boy, this movie was in a tough crowd. I haven’t seen Good Will Hunting in its entirety, but what I’ve seen was pretty good. I’m a sucker for Robin Williams playing more or less straight roles (example below). As Good as It Gets is not my favorite movie, but Jack Nicholson crushed that thing beneath the sort of piss-and-vinegar snark that only himself and Bill Murray can deliver. The Full Monty is better as a musical, and anybody who says otherwise is probably a Stalinist. And then, yes, there’s the eleven hundred ton behemoth that was Titanic. That film would win eleven of fourteen awards for which it was nominated, including the lion’s share of the technical awards, Best Director, and Best Picture. Where that movie got its shit tossed was in the acting department; Leo is no Laurence Olivier, and Kate Winslet ran for Best Actress against Dame Judi Dench, Julie Chrstie, and Helena Bonham Carter (not to mention the winner of the award, Helen Hunt). Now, Titanic is not necessarily a film in my wheelhouse, but I can appreciate it for its technical achievements and sheer scope and audacity. I think L.A. Confidential is a superior film because it is a tighter, more focused film that is better at doing the one thing it does (be a great genre film) extremely well. The films couldn’t be much more different, really. The effects budget for Confidential, outside of a few good action scenes, was probably within the scope of what an average household pays for groceries every few months. Titanic used every trick in the book to replicate the ship and its ill-fated maiden voyage, but the characters in it were these boring stereotypes. It just feels hollow when set against what I just saw. Real shame, because I think Titanic had crazy momentum going into the awards and was about as fated to win as The Return of the King, in the grand scheme of things.
Well now, I’ve gone entirely too long without seeing the crag-like face of Geoffrey Rush. Next week, I’m going to fix that with a little piece called Shine. I don’t know what it’s about, but based on the title I’m assuming there will be dicks. Good times.
- What’s that? You’re asking why I still haven’t watched Erin Brockovich? Well, it’s because I hate you personally and like to keep you waiting. Seriously though, I intend to watch it within the next two weeks. I’ve been working a pretty big angle lately within my professional life…
- Speaking of which, if you are from a certain university who is probably looking up information on me as part of a hiring process, welcome! I promise my language is not this blue in person; think of this as something of an assumed character. I’m not afraid to admit I am a person prone to occasionally exploring the outside realms of decent behavior, but it is all in fun. Here’s hoping we get along well.
- Do you guys remember that Robin Williams ad for the 3DS remake of Ocarina of Time, and how that was basically the starting point of that console’s life? Things were pretty dicey in terms of sales up to that point. I’m convinced Nintendo needs to get Williams back into the celebrity endorsement fold to rescue the Wii U from its terrifying sales predicament. He could sell me Christmas cards in June.
The Thin Red Line
Written and Directed by Terrence Malick
Starring Sean Penn, Adrian Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, and John Travolta
The Thin Red Line is as much a war movie as Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is a war novel. That is to say, while there are certainly portions of the film depicting violence and suffering, the real substance of the piece is a broad, philosophical study on the human condition. What else would it be? It’s Terrence goddamn Malick making a movie about World War II, so of course you’d be forgiven for mistaking parts of it for a nature film. I’ve run through my thoughts on Malick prior to this, but the skinny is this: he is a cerebral, almost needlessly obtuse man who made at least one masterpiece (Days of Heaven), and is more interested in metaphysics than things like…well, plots.
The rub here is, while I found The Tree of Life to be too far up its own ass to be wholly enjoyable, this film worked for me. In fact, I’ll go right ahead and say that it outstrips Saving Private Ryan by a not inconsiderable distance. And it did this with Sean Penn as a lead! Or did it?
I ask this because this is a film, like Tree of Life, where the notion of a lead actor is rendered pointless at some point. So many characters come and go during the nearly three hour running time of the film that I personally could name maybe two characters without a cheat sheet. Penn got top billing, and clearly there is a strong enough professional relationship between him and Malick that he could show up in his later films, but Penn’s on-screen time is probably about equal to that of Jim “Jesus Christ” Caviezel. Set against contemporary heavy hitter George Clooney, it seems strange that these younger, certainly less recognizable faces essentially lead the film.
So what the hell actually happens in this thing? Private Witt (Caviezel) is AWOL with another soldier in the South Pacific at the outset, living a peaceful life among the native islanders. This reprieve is shattered when an American ship arrives and casts Witt and Co. into the brig. He is informed by Sergeant Welsh (Penn) that he has been attached to a punitive unit responsible for stretcher duties. Welsh is fronting tough guy, while Witt is fronting any enthusiasm he might have for being in the Army; both men seem to find some sort of strange comradeship at this point, and this sort of bewildered brothers-in-arms relationship is the primary vector for Malick’s philosophical rumination throughout.
Meanwhile, above deck, Travolta’s cameo appearance happens. He informs a cleaned up Nick Nolte of the operational plans for the seizure of Guadalcanal from the Japanese. Through inner monologue, we learn that Nolte’s tired of being snubbed for promotions. Bookmark that. Below deck, roughly six thousand actors you might recognize make preparations for battle. Their emotions range from proper grizzled veteran to jittery teenager. The order is given to land, and soon the cast of the film embarks onto an empty and abandoned beach. The Japanese have moved inland, and will need to be dug out of entrenched positions. Oh joy!
For the next two hours we watch individual soldiers at war. The events are depicted neither as a bunch of handsome young men moving unimpeded through yellow hordes of savages, nor the terrible march of drafted idealists driven into a meat grinder by a bunch of cigar-chomping sociopaths. Instead there is something like a balance: there are selfless acts, men driven to madness, differences of opinion between officers, soldiers clinging to the damp earth in fear for their lives, and eventually a cathartic rampage through a beleaguered Japanese encampment. There are group objectives, but the nature of those objectives is conveyed to the audience via the individual struggles which guide their formation and enable their completion. Nolte is trying to lead a successful attack to receive a measure of professional acknowledgement after years of toil, while the captain (Koteas, who I swore up and down was Michael Stulhbarg) who questions is commands is trying to protect the men under him. Random, very quick death is as likely as an agonizing wait on the battlefield for a last shot of morphine or a stretcher trip off the field. I was reminded of Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher whose life was transformed in the war depicted in this film. A soldier next to him was shot straight through the head, as I recall, and he spent a lot of time (read: Ph.D amounts of time) wondering about what the difference was between himself or the man next to him taking that bullet. See? I can speak philosophy.
The mop up after seizing a hill which acts as the primary antagonist for our characters (the Japanese on said hill are seldom actually seen) earns Penn, Caviezel et al a week behind lines, during which time the men cope with the violence done by and to them. They then return to the front, absent Koteas (dismissed by Nolte for being “too soft”), and by the end of the proceedings (which are worth watching), Penn and his fellow soldiers bury Jim Caviezel. Within the last ten minutes of the film, George Clooney finally shows up for about twelve seconds. Nature footage, a coconut sprouting into a tree on a beach, and credits.
The reason any of this works, I’m convinced, is that Malick decided to do this heady study of warfare and violence in the context of an actual thing that happened. The credits list military consultants on the film, and while I don’t feel qualified to sit here and say that every piece of equipment and jargon used is “accurate”, it all looked very considered. Pearl Harbor, this was not. Weaving together the historical battle of Guadalcanal, the titular James Jones novel, and Malickian narrative devices winds up being simultaneously a pretty damn good war movie, and a pretty damn good anti-war movie. For me, this would have all fallen apart on Sean Penn. Seeing this preening, liberal prick portraying a soldier just put me off at first, and delivering his combat-hardened lines sounded forced and faked at first. Then it becomes clear that those lines are forced and faked by the character of Sgt. Welsh, which either makes Penn a good actor, or Malick great at casting. In any case, I could buy it. As for Caviezel being an almost hopelessly optimistic man in the face of such brutality, I think there are such creatures in our military and always have been. Even if I’m completely wrong on that account, he’s there because Malick needed somebody to have inner monologue from the perspective of a person trying to see things in a positive light.
I can’t really go into detail on all that is said in the prodigious amount of narration that occurs in this film, on account of forgetting most of it once it was said. There is depth and value to these lines, but I prefer to see them as a stream of consciousness, ambient droning. It’s precisely what I expect/want from this director, whose auteur fingerprint is unmistakable to people who have experienced it, and here it might have even surpassed Days of Heaven in terms of its content. Delivery though? Shit. Just go watch Days of Heaven and I promise I’ll shut up about it. Man, that’s a movie! And so was this!
IS IT ANY GOOD? Yes. This is a not so much a war movie as it is a movie about war. I once dated a woman who hated violence in film. It was so upsetting to her that she could not get through the first ten minutes of Saving Private Ryan without crying over how awful people can be to each other. I don’t think she would make it through the entirety of this film, except for it being clear from what is literally being said that the film and its creator are just as bewildered and frustrated with mankind’s penchant for self-destruction as she is.
SHOULD IT HAVE WON? Yes. I have not seen Shakespeare in Love in full, but the parts I’ve seen have made me want to put a screwdriver in my brain. The film to me is a bunch of faux-Luhrmann romance, anecdotes about Elizabethan stage, and Geoffrey Rush looking directly at the camera to say “That’s theatre!” to a bunch of shit-eating theater snobs. And you know a group of people who like to imagine themselves as theater snobs, but are not? Hollywood. They’d love to take ownership of this older tradition because they see themselves having been born from it. In keeping with the time-honored tradition of giving awards to films about themselves, Shakespeare won due to being about proto-Hollywood. Period. The movie looks terrible, guys! As for the other front runner in my braincase, Saving Private Ryan is an incredible film in its own right. Yes, it’s another lengthy World War II film, and it also gets away from being strictly a war film that glorifies America’s role in that war. I’d also make the case that it by no means glorifies the violence committed by its characters. It does, however, wind up being a narrowly focused study on a handful of characters and their individual acts of bravery and sacrifice to a mission. You could watch that film and remember names of characters because individuals mattered in its war. In Malick’s war, which I would hold to be closer to reality, individual wills are insignificant against the huge wheels turning at that point in history.
Want a change of pace? How about a film noir piece? No? Well, too bad! L.A. Confidential is going to happen next week, whether you want it or now!
The Cider House Rules
Directed by Lasse Hallstrom
Starring Tobey Maguire, Michael Caine, Charize Theron, Paul Rudd, Delroy Lindo, and Erykah Badu
I did not expect my second encounter with Tobey “The Spidered Man” Maguire to be any occasion worth noting. I mean, for shit’s sake, it’s Tobey Maguire. Lo and behold, he manages to hold his own in a film that features no less a man than Michael Caine. It was just one of the many factors that elevates The Cider House Rules into a very high position on my own running list of Almost Oscars features.
The film itself follows the life of Homer Wells (Maguire), an orphan in Middle-of-fucking-nowhere, Maine around the time of the Second World War. He is a twice-returned child to an orphanage managed by Dr. Wilbur Larch (Caine), who also provides his services as a medical professional on the side both for women delivering babies directly to the orphanage, and abortions for those who would rather not keep them. Maguire is hesitant to perform abortions, based on his own contentment and happiness with being alive in spite of not having been wanted. Caine argues that the services he provides are better than the alternative; indeed, the two characters bury a woman who died from complications stemming from a back-alley abortion while continuing this conversation. Yes, this film goes into a relatively nuanced, ethical conversation about abortions within the first thirty minutes.
Eventually, Mr. Wells decides to go off and explore the world outside of the only home he knows. His escape vector is the couple of Wally (Paul Rudd) and Candi (Theron), in for an abortion as a result of Wally’s shore leave shenanigans. Maguire rides off with the two and takes a job working for Wally’s mother, the owner of an apple orchard. This is all to the great sadness of Caine, who feels himself to have become a surrogate father to the young man and has spent years training him in the medical profession. Now his “son” has gone off into the world with an over abundance of naïvety and seems like he cannot even be bothered to write or call about his new life. Did I mention Caine’s got a little problem huffing the ether? Yeah, well he gets into that into an increasingly big way in the absence of his apprentice.
Meanwhile, down at the orchard, Little Mac is navigating professional relations with his new coworkers. The overseer, Mr. Rose, is a seemingly upright guy whose daughter also works in the orchards with the rest of the crew. He is grossly overqualified for the position, but approaches it with a measure of humility. He also winds up borking Candi after Wally’s been called up for more service, which becomes communal knowledge to the entire working crew. His exposure to the world outside of his orphanage home includes Theron’s bum and HOLY SHIT IS THAT J.K. SIMMONS? I love this guy! The movie could fly off the rails and do all sorts of shit at this point, and would still be great!
I’ve spoiled a lot of the plot points of films in this series, and this is the first one I have considered holding back a bit about the film. I am not going to do that. The titular Cider House Rules are a sheet of paper ignored for most of the film, consisting of ignored rules that have no practical application for the laborers boarding in the orchard’s bunk house. Theirs is a world unto itself, and those concerned make their own rules. Those rules wind up including knife fights, incest, abortion, and murder. There’s also the eventual return of Wally, and the deaths of children. It goes into some heavy territory.
The reason it all winds up working is very simple: the film is calm. For the themes it explores, the actual timbre of the movie is one of quiet contemplation from the perspective of a polite and thoughtful protagonist. Maguire is not some Forrest Gump-esque simpleton; the man performs an abortion, for shit’s sake. He is, however, a young man who is coming to accept the world as a far more complicated place than he could have ever imagined had he simply remained behind at the orphanage. His big takeaway, given to him by the rest of his work detail, is that the cider house rules, having been written by outsiders, are irrelevant primarily because they do not take into account the actual lived conditions of those meant to abide by them. Life is a complicated, confusing mess, and sometime people are going to have abortions to get through it.
It’s interesting to watch this film as one of my many former home states is attempting to crush its last remaining abortion clinic. I am of the conviction that abortions will happen with or without medical professionals, and prefer that they be conducted in a safe and controlled environment. Deciding to have an abortion is a decision I literally cannot understand because I don’t have a uterus. It seems incredibly complicated and terrifying, but there are cases where I can absolutely understand why one would be necessary. My takeaway from this film is that Maguire eventually comes around to a similar position, but even if that read is off, I thought the film’s overall treatment of the subject to be very well done. In fact…
IS IT ANY GOOD? Hell yes it is. Michael Caine affects a Northeastern accent very well, plays a flawed and complicated man who goes through a complete dramatic arc (as I understand it), and earned the pants off of his Best Supporting Actor award. Other performances, while perhaps not measuring up Caine, are quite good. I don’t think I was ready to be genuinely liking Maguire in a film on his own merits, but here I am saying that his was a good casting decision. This is a film that would not exist in the form it has today. It is too meditative, and deals with to heavy a topic to not have some sort of overwrought bullshit sprinkled into it unnecessarily. In the form it thankfully inhabits, I wound up liking it over most of the films featured thus far.
SHOULD IT HAVE WON? Sure. The three competitive films for Best Picture at the 72nd Academy Awards were this one, The Green Mile, and American Beauty. Green Mile has a few tripups, primarily its length, but is a fine film. Another fine film in the Tom Hanks library, which is my main reason for cutting my initial list of three down to two. Beauty is a film I have not seen. My understanding is that it deals with the more sordid hidden details of suburban life, or something like that. Think Twin Peaks. Fortunately, my thespian brother gave me the following nine word summary of the film: “Floating bag pedophile double-edged sword of individuality gay gays.” Snoozer. The Cider House Rules takes it.
Speaking of people involved with the film industry who show up more than once in this series, next week I get to watch another Malick film. It’s also about World War II, which comes up a whole hell of a lot in modern cinema. The Thin Red Line is next!
- Yes, I am going to get around to Erin Brockovich. Probably next week, before I watch the Malick film.
- This is the end of the first quarter! I have a tentative top five list for you (which I’ll discuss later). I want to wait until I’ve watched Erin until I publish that; what I’m saying is this page will be live updated some time next week.
Directed by Robert Altman
Starring Eileen Atkins, Alan Bates, Charles Dance, Stephen Fry, Michael Gambon, Richard E. Grant, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Ryan Philippe, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Emily Watson (fuck me, that’s a a long list)
Gosford Park is Robert Altman’s first foray into depicting prehistoric man. The film revolves around a story of our distance ancestors gather together in some sort of primitive festival, and is ultimately inconsequential to the real meat of the film: watching these troglodytes go through the motions of what modern anthropologists hold to be an accurate recreation of life for our early ancestors. We watch them form relationships, prepare food, share the gift of fire, hunt for their meals, and compete for mates. All of this is done with the usual Altman touch of naturalistic dialog, with the added flourish that the speech has been reconstructed from the period and presented for a modern audience to enjoy.
Seriously though, the movie is a period piece in 1940s England.
Altman is one of those mystical American directors who I feel people need to have on their list of things to mention when they want to present themselves as a person who “gets” American cinema. I cannot claim to really get anything that is presented to me in any context. As far as his films go, I’ve seen most of McCabe and Mrs. Miller and think it is probably as close as we can come to experiencing the Victorian Pacific Northwest. Great film, great use of Leonard Cohen tunes for the score, and certainly deserving of its place in the National Film Registry.
This one? Man, I don’t know. At the risk of exposing myself as too naked of a Marxist asshole, my blood starts boiling when I am presented with a film centered around the interactions of a bunch of leisure class layabouts, people who portray choices of attire as points of social contention and literally rely on the work of other human beings to dress and bathe them. Thank your local gods, then, that this film splits the difference quite nicely between the starkly segregated goings-on of an upper-class-git-of-the-year style gathering; wealthy white people have their petty little lives woven together, while the people keeping the lights on at the titular Gosford Park have their own stories to tell. The film winds up shining the strongest, for me, when those worlds are seen to spill over into each other every so often.
We are made to primarily follow the plot through the essentially omniscient lens of Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), the servant of the Countess of Trentham (Smith, who is having a lot of fun being somebody I’d like to see run over a few times). It is Mary who stumbles into revealing situations about Sir William McCordle (Gambon, aka New Dumbledore), pieces together the circumstances of his murder and the more lurid details of his private life, and basically moves the film along so the audience stops shouting at it. She has a few great scenes with the real star of the film, Mr. Parks (Owen, the badass), and delivers the final line of the film. She plays a fairly meek and soft-spoken part, and it is in consideration of this that her plot-essential conversations with Owen and Mrs. Wilson (Mirren, prior to her promotion to Queen of England) stand out as character development scenes. She’s growing a spine, perhaps. Maybe she’ll eventually standup to Professer McGonagall’s bullshit.
If it seems like there’s quite a list of character names, you are spot on. Imagine, if you will, party scenes full of maybe two dozen characters you care nothing for, all talking over each other and in hushed, secretive conversations. The setting is stifling, the people are disasters, and it seems like a new and pointless addition to the plot is sprinkled in every few minutes. That’s the first half of this film, taking its time to basically introduce everybody to the audience before it gets around to killing Michael Gambon and actually delving into issues of factory girls in early 20th century England and general labor-management relations in a class systems.
Over half of this film is Jeff kryptonite: bourgeoisie bullshit. This came up in the Seabiscuit piece I did, and holy shit if it isn’t going to come up again in the Merchant-Ivory film I will likely subject myself to in a few weeks. Yes, the servants are treated with varying amounts of disregard and malice, but nobody in this film (with the exceptions of Owen and Mirren) is actually struggling against anything. The problems presented are so far abstracted from my own lived experience that I could give a fuck.
It’s not all bad, though. Watching such a list of very talented actors enjoying themselves as smug turd-pushing burdens on humanity is a pleasure, the cinematography is worth commending for contrasting the bright, gilded world of the upper class against the dim, crowded basement dwelling servant folk and their own secret world unto themselves. The music was really great throughout, especially a few original pieces performed on the jazz piano. When I allowed myself to watch this film from what I heard referred to in a conference as an “eight mile high perspective” (which might be the point?) I found myself enjoying what was happening much more than when I drilled down and tried to empathize with anybody outside of a tiny handful of characters.
Ultimately my real problem is that I came to this film expecting a fun murder mystery, and instead got a blurry story about classism. Not a bad thing, but certainly far from the whodunit I was anticipating. What this tells me is that I can no longer rely on my own judgement, and should never trust myself again. Thanks, Robert Altman!
WAS IT ANY GOOD: Sure. I don’t think a film becomes this rage-inducing by accident. We are presented with insufferable people, and there is a certain schadenfreude to watching a few of them receiving karmic retribution for being so awful. The film is nice to look at, nice to listen to, and manages to get Stephen Fry to portray a bumbling English inspector. Also, we get to watch Clive Owen be his usual awesome self every time he is on screen. He kept me on board, plus a handful of pretty good scenes involving class relations.
SHOULD IT HAVE WON: Probably not. In a year with four entries (because The Fellowship of the Ring wasn’t the Peter Jackson film to get Best Picture), I struggle to see the award not going to A Beautiful Mind (which I recall being pretty damn good and having Russell “Fightin’ Around the World” Crowe). Moulin Rouge! is fun, but the cheap with a heart of gold plot just turns me off. Can’t speak to In the Bedroom, except that it managed to lose in every category for which it was nominated. I’d say the one award that Gosford Park did manage to win, Best Original Screenplay, was a bit dubious in any case. It went against Amelie, Mememto, and The Royal Tenenbaums, and somehow managed to win. Did these assholes even watch The Royal Tenenbaums? By being what is probably the best Wes Anderson film, it is de facto the best film of 2001. I call shenanigans.
Next week, Michael Bolton stars in Erin Brockovich. Get it? Anybody?
- I know you are all waiting with baited breaths for my posting of the films I’ll be watching after The Cider House Rules. Never fear. I have the list right here in this hard drive, and will be putting the lucky(?) films up in the Schedule page at some point next week. Stay tuned!
- I got through this film with only two breaks, but one of them involved me preparing a loaf of bread from scratch and starting to write this.
- Of course we tied the Portland Timbers today. Of course we did. Son of a bitch.
Directed by Stephen Daldry
Starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and Nicole Kidman
So let me see if I have this straight. In 2003 CE, given a choice between three films (I’ll explain this in a moment), the Academy chose Chicago over The Hours. This is all the proof that one of my working hypotheses going into this experiment is rock solid: movies about show business and Hollywood are first in line for Best Picture awards. Even kitschy musicals like Chicago.
The Hours is an incredible movie, and it’s also something I’m going to struggle in describing with anything less than a ten pound sledgehammer of pretense. For shit’s sake, the film opens with Virginia Woolf’s suicide set to Philip Glass music, a late title card, and stars Meryl Streep. Imagine an entire audience of turtleneck-and-scarf clad film buffs pleasantly nodding to themselves as if they’ve grasped the very meaning of life based on what they are witnessing on a screen. This is about what I envision for any prescreening of The Hours, more so than anything I’ve watched to date (including The Tree of Life). In distilling the film to what I feel is its essence, the themes that remain are human interrelations and gender identity. You know, small stuff. To add to the task of thinking about this movie, all of these things are done from a female space, in three different time periods, in exploration of a book I have not read. So let’s work this out.
A real bargain of a film, The Hours contains three stories for the price of one. Each one features fine performances from actors almost anybody will recognize, though you might be forgiven for not noticing that the woman under the prosthetic Virginia Woolf nose is Nicole Kidman. She spends a day in 1923 grappling with a new book idea while coping with the suffocating suburban life her husband and doctors have imposed on her after a couple suicide attempts. Meanwhile, over the course of a day in 1951, Laura Brown (Moore) reads through Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway while quietly muddling through a boring suburban postwar marriage, flirting with lesbianisn, and contemplating suicide while five months pregnant. Finally, the third film revolves around Clarissa Vaughan (Streep), an actress I usually find insufferable playing the sort of insufferable East Coast person whom, upon appearing in a program on television, I’d generally change the channel. She’s living with a girlfriend of several years, and throwing a party for a now-celebrated novelist friend (Harris). Said friend is absolutely ragged, having been more or less destroyed physically by AIDS, and spends time on screen referring to their past relationship while referring to Streep as Mrs. Dalloway. Hoho! Full circle!
Now, these three stories are similar thematically, are edited together with nice chronological jump cuts (particularly at the beginning), and serve to reinforce each other through repetition. Each of the three focal characters seems stuck in what their respective societies would deem an appropriate feminine space, and each seems pretty fucking miserable about it. As we move forward through time in the film, those worlds become more complicated; Kidman’s interactions are primarily with her husband and sister, while Moore grapples with a husband (John C. Reilly, who doesn’t do a whole hell of a lot but would have a great year regardless thanks to an envious role in Chicago), child, and neighbor (Toni Collette, who is awesome in everything). Streep winds up grappling with her girlfriend, dying AIDS victim ex-boyfriend, dying AIDS victim ex-boyfriend’s ex-boyfriend (Jeff Daniels, before his awesome run doing commercials for the state of Michigan), daughter (Claire Danes), and eventually the one part of this film that threw things out of alignment for me.
All three women are uncomfortable in their lives and are either exploring or settling on non-heteronormative expressions of sexuality. This film is not putzing around in the same LGBT film space as, say, Brokeback Mountain. Every relationship in this film is believably complicated and mature, with characters who we do not meet as young and star-crossed lovers, but their middle-aged incarnations of themselves. Kidman and Moore are given little space to ruminate aloud over such issues, so the duty falls to Streep to effectively explain the old Facebook maxim, “it’s complicated”. I wound up thinking that the Streep parts of this film were fantastic, and this is remarkable in itself. Her acting usually feels so forced, like she wants the audience to be acutely aware that she is in the process of acting while she is doing it. Here she winds up being a fairly human character, being beaten down emotionally by a man she once loved and ignoring it out of a sense of duty to him, a sense of devotion. This party is more than some social event to her.
The film’s last depiction of Harris was very hard for me to watch. My life has been very directly affected by suicide, and I have struggled with suicidal thoughts for years. Things have improved markedly over time, but I don’t believe that you ever fully recover from these events. The film would agree. Death and suicide are ideas explored very intimately in each of the three films-within-film, though the point being driven home is ultimately that a life not deemed worth living can be a death in itself for the person living it. I once planned on drowning myself, and three minutes into the film I watch somebody do just that. The tone does become somewhat lighter, but not much. Even when Streep and Harris both decide to literally let more light into a room, the tone of those scenes becomes quite bleak.
We’re complicated, fucked-up little animals who often don’t know what’s best for us. We chose destructive behaviors all the time, some choosing to swing a little harder than others. The space that characters in this film wind up going to in order to drive themselves to suicide? I don’t understand it. I also don’t understand their points of origin, as they seem to be fairly well walled up in what I’ll call, for lack of a better term at the moment, a female space. The protagonists are better able to communicate with other women; Kidman’s interactions with a young girl are on something like a subliminal level, and Moore’s kiss with Collette seems to be processed and understood by both characters with nary a word. When Streep speaks explicitly about her feelings and thought processes, it almost feels like courtesy to schmucks like myself who don’t “get it”. It is appreciated, because I don’t. I am on the cusp of being a middle-aged white dude, and I am convinced that I will never really understand women. They deserve every right and privilege I have, are capable of anything I can do, and the difference between myself and a woman, that of gender identity, is the most defining and fundamental difference in the whole of human history; that I personally believe that gender identity as a static binary state is bunk does nothing to refute the fact that every civilization in human history has had large chunks of its legal and social norms build around the idea that men and women are different.
What I’m saying is I don’t think I am capable of fully appreciating this film as I am not a woman. That’s an incredibly complicated position, which I can appreciate, but it’s where I am. I can appreciate the topics and perspective of this film, and enjoy it as a whole, but I can never go to where the protagonists are. However, this film does an incredible job of trying to get you there.
Oh, right, problems. I think the “big reveal” that Moore’s young son in 1951 was Ed Harris in 2001 was about as surprising as the sun rising in the east this morning. Also, and this is the much bigger issue, the film escews the notion of three discreet stories within the last then minutes when Moore shows up (in aged makeup) to explain that, while Harris had her committing suicide in his final literary work, she had in fact abandoned her family to live in Canada. She seems unapologetic in her decision, claiming to have chosen life over death. I don’t have a problem with Moore’s character having a proper coda, but having her go into the other movie to do it felt…fucking wrong. As soon as I saw her in Streep’s doorway, I was heard to say, “Oh godddamn it, movie, you almost did it!”
WAS IT ANY GOOD: It was fantastic! The only real flags I’d put up are that the film goes to some dark, impenetrable places, features what can be some indulgent Philip Glass, and stumbles a bit at the finish line. Otherwise we’ve got an amazing cast doing amazing performances throughout, grappling with intimate issues that we all get to play with at some point in our lives. Certainly, this is one of the best films I’ve watched out of the lot thus far. Hell, after the disaster that was Seabiscuit, I’m rejuvinated and ready to get through another forty movies now! Yes to life, and yes to films! Hell, yes to Meryl Streep! What have I become? Oh god!
SHOULD IT HAVE WON: Ah, probably. Remember how I said it was this film or one of two others? About that…
First off, let’s scratch The Two Towers off the list. The unspoken agreement to give The Return of the King a billion awards for the entire trilogy was in full play, as it had been from the beginning. Next up is Gangs of New York, a movie so muddled in its own stupid carnival atmosphere and DiCaprio’s presence that no less than Daniel Day-Lewis could not fix it. Ouch. What’s left is The Hours, The Pianist, and Chicago. Now, I haven’t seen the entirety of The Pianist, but it has a lot of great things going for it. Brody is a fantastic actor, and walked away from the 75th Academy Awards with a little statue to show for it. World War II films, particularly ones that touch on the Holocaust, are always strong candidates for Best Picture for a number of reasons that I’m just not even going to bring up here. That film was unfortunately directed by Roman Polanski, a man who fucks children. Hey, that didn’t stop the Academy from getting Harrison Ford to hand deliver him an award for Best Picture, so it isn’t that big of a deal, right? Oh, but he regrets his decision, so that makes it better. Easy to say while hiding abroad to avoid jail time. Coward.
Chicago is an alright musical. It is not my favorite modern musical by a longshot, and The Hours makes it look like a joke.
Next week, let’s not dwell so much on suicide, gender politics, pedophilia, and the various ambiguities of modern life. Let’s watch a dark comedy, alright? How about Gosford Park?
- Nicole Kidman’s award winning performance reminded me way too much of a friend and former roommate. It was almost uncanny.
- I think Julianne Moore is wildly attractive, and have for a long time, but to be completely honest I couldn’t have said with confidence that she was an equally awesome actress. Hell, the movie I could think of which featured her of the top of my head in conversation was Evolution. Turns out, she’s way better than I imagined. She’s tasked with a performance which demands that she shows, without saying, that she’s suffocating and beginning to realize it, and she nails it.
- Did you know that Michael Caine was nominated for Best Actor at these awards for The Quiet American? I had no idea! That movie is great, and even manages to wring a great performance out of Brendan goddamn Frasier, Seattle’s finest son!
- Not an actual Let’s Play this week, instead a story from Reddit. I play me a good deal of Civilization, and lately a man was given a spawn as the Huns on a piece of land completely surrounded by impassable mountains. Follow the story as beagleears leads the Hun Empire into a whole new world.
The world stretched vast distances to the east and south of our Valley. Millions of people lived outside, dozens of unique civilizations and independent city states. Most we’d never even heard of before, in the short travels we’d made outside of the valley. Suddenly, the Valley that was once our World seemed so small. Where would we go from here, now that we had learned the World was not ours?
Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper, William H. Macy, and Elizabeth Banks
1 beef roast (2-3 pounds, a shoulder roast will do fine)
1 large yellow onion, sliced
1 packet French onion soup mix
3 oz. barbecue or steak sauce
1 tbsp. vegetable or olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Begin preparation by starting the film, which prattles on a bit about American exceptionalism in the early 20th century. While Jeff Bridges is on screen, pay attention while putting the onions in the bottom of a 6 quart crock pot (this ensures your roast will not stick). Notice the Chris Cooper shows up as a cowboy, and think that was good casting. Once the film announces that it is in Alberta, place oil in a skillet or frying pan and heat until water sizzles upon it. Rub salt and pepper onto both sides of the roast, then sear the roast in the oil on both sides for about six minutes. This adds a lot of flavor, and will occupy you during some boring family drama with the film’s second protagonist, Red (Maguire) and his background. Once seared, place roast on top of the onions in your crock pot. Atop the roast, add one half of the French onion soup mix. Also delicately coat the top and sides of the roast with the sauce, until the film gets along to its first real horse races. Set crock pot on high, and let sit for three hours. By then, hopefully, the film is nearing the end of its first act and Bridges, Maguire and Cooper have managed to slowly march into their inevitable meeting of the minds over a horse.
Watch film for a while.
Once film is over, and you have summarily forgotten its feeble attempts at Cracker Barrel Restaurant-level Depression Era pastiche, perhaps best embodied by an enjoyable Macy role as a prop-happy radio personality, remove roast from the crock pot and allow to cool before slicing. Remove onions from the drippings. Place these drippings into a hot pan, add a little chicken or vegetable stock. Think about ham-fisted metaphors about recovery, and how you just don’t understand the traditional Anglo-American obsession with horses. Agree wholeheartedly with your brother, who sat through the film with you, that there is almost nothing in the world more disgustingly privileged and bourgeoisie than problems that come along with owning a horse. By this point, the drippings should have thickened a bit. Add a bit of flour and butter, stir until combined.
Serve with mashed potatoes and a vegetable of your choosing. Realize that your meal is probably more exciting than Seabiscuit, and have a chuckle.
IS IT ANY GOOD? Completely competent, completely dull. Horse stuff just runs off me like water off a duck. But this film could have been about a lot of other things; hell, it is about a lot of other things, if you can be bothered to look. It’s primarily about a country clawing its way out of a literal and spiritual depression during the 1930s, and how the underdog story of a race horse inspired the shit out of everybody. The acting is functional, the costumes and other period accouterments are present, and at some point during one of the maybe half a dozen races, I noticed that I was alive. This was not going to be a film for me, I knew that going in, and I don’t hold it against this film for not being tailored to my every taste. I can hold being rote, patronizing, and pretty fucking stiff throughout its 140 minute running time against it, and by golly am I gonna do it.
SHOULD IT HAVE WON? Don’t make me laugh. It’s not that often that the winner of an award was obvious three years in advance, but it sure as hell was in this case. The Return of the King would have needed to be explicitly culpable for the Great Leap Forward, the Holocaust, the Hooldomor, and pop-punk to lose this award and the other nine dozen it received. The Academy needed four more films on the Best Pictures nominee list, and I feel like this one was the sloppy fifth entry. What really interests me, but sadly falls outside of my rules for this exercise, is that Lost in Translation was nominated for Best Picture as well. Now that’s a film that I love. It has some problems, sure, but whereas a movie like Benjamin Button has to use a disembodied Brad Pitt’s voice to explain man feelings, Sofia Coppola was able to convey those emotions using nothing but a frazzled Bill Murray and one of the best film soundtracks ever assembled. I feel like I have actually lived parts of Lost in Translation. This film, Seabiscuit? I watched it happen for over two hours. The Academy was right to snub Seabiscuit when set against any other film. They were almost right about Lost in Translation.
Sorry for the shorter post, but I can honestly muster nothing more elucidating than the meal I prepared while watching the movie. Next week should be a lot more exciting, if only because JULIANNE MOORE IS IN A MOVIE. It’s called The Hours, and it looks great. Onward, to victory!
- Late post is late. I stream a lot of these films via Netflix and Amazon, and the fact that neither hosts Seabiscuit made me even more “excited” to watch it. The good news is Scarecrow Video is nearby, and they have everything you could ever want. Seriously. They’re even working on getting a liquor license!
- I started eating meat again after four years of vegetarianism. Seemed like a good idea, especially since I’ve more or less mastered every possible way to prepare vegetables.
- I would like to thank my brother, without whose moral support and timely arrival with a six pack of beer this film screening might have been the last one.
- This week’s Let’s Play is a sequel, just like The Return of the King! It’s about a sequel to one of the greatest Japanese role-playing games ever made, and goes up its ass far enough to find a turnip man. For real! I’m serious, and if you don’t believe me, you’ll have to read The Dark Id’s Chrono Cross playthrough for yourself!
Chrono Cross is a JRPG released in August of 2000 (with a November ’99 release in Japan) late in the Sony Playstation’s lifecycle. It is a sequel to 1995’s much acclaimed Chrono Trigger. Well…it is a sequel in the sense that it takes place in the same world (technically) and makes many references to the previous title. It doesn’t actually continue any manner of plot from its predecessor…at least not directly.
To be frank, Chrono Cross is a terrible sequel to Chrono Trigger. It takes place in a region that didn’t exist at any point in the previous game. The plot has fuck all to do with Trigger until toward the end. And it basically shits all over its predecessor and its characters at several points. So, if you really liked Chrono Trigger and were hoping for some more time traveling antics goodness…yeah…look elsewhere…
Strangely enough, Chrono Cross is also a pseudo-remake of a text adventure spin-off of Chrono Trigger, Radical Dreamers, for an obscure Japanese SNES peripheral the Satellaview. Several of the characters and plot points in the early game were directly from that title, as well as a number of music tracks. I’ll point out parallels to Radical Dreamers and Chrono Trigger when they crop up. I’ve done my homework.
Directed by Ang Lee
Starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Michelle Williams, and Randy Quaid
Let’s talk about sexuality for a moment. Sex is a fun and healthy form of exercise, and most of our species is as compelled to take part in this activity as Earth is to orbit the sun. The drive to reproduce is biologically hard coded into living things as a survival mechanism; make more of you so that you keep living. The side effect of feeling pretty good in the act is just a nice perk. Being so base an impulse (by which I mean occuring in our lizard brain and understandable by basically anybody, as opposed to having a sense of “wrongness” associated with it), of course sex winds up in a lot films. This is fine. Appropriately rated films with scenes of sexuality are fine. Pornography is fine. There is nothing inherently wrong with, to cut right to it, watching people fucking. Where I begin to feel uncomfortable, however, is watching people fumble through awkward scenes of sexuality involving people not communicating what they want or expect from the experience, leading into situations where angry and confused people are dealing with nasty side effects.
I will also add that everything I wrote above applies to almost any breed of consentual sex between adults human beings, regardless of their genders or the form of sex that entails. Have fun!
Alright, that’s out of the way.
Brokeback Mountain is ultimately a film about confused people having confused sex, their inability to deal with the implications of their relationship, and the society around them that is ultimately willing to kill them for what they are doing. It’s a tragedy. It takes about a quarter of a functioning brain to put together the component pieces of this film (its periodization, location, the sorts of characters involved, etc.) to know that the end of the film is going to be pretty raw. That’s not a bad thing; knowing the end point provides some structure for the audience to graft onto the film, a healthy thing for a movie that spends perhaps too much time wandering around in the second act.
In fact, was a little bewildering throughout, perhaps as a reflection of the psyche of protagonist Ennis Del Mar (Ledger). His chance encounter with Jack Twist (Gyllenhaal) at the office of a ranch owner is the setup for their being stranded on the titular mountain together, working for peanuts in rough country to protect sheep. By the twenty minute mark, I was thinking to myself that a few decades ago the premise of two attractive country boys up on a mountain working sheep could have been an entire film, and a pretty good one if it was treated well. I began to wonder when the film was going to take its left turn. As it happened, the left turn occurs at about the twenty-one minute mark, in what is the only scene of gay sex in the film. Partially clothed at that.
I’m an open minded gentleman. I voted in support of gay marriage, and support the notion so much that I became ordained just to provide free marriage ceremonies in the state of Washington (really). Hell, I’m more than a little attracted to David Bowie, even as he nears his seventieth birthday. What occurs in the first sexual encounter between Ledger and Gyllenhaal is not offensive to me for being “nasty gay shit”. I was put off by how abrupt, fumbly, and confused it was. And I have a good feeling this was all deliberate. As a modern gentleman, I can appreciate situations where things escalate from zero to sexing in the blink of an eye. Maybe my problem is that most of those situations were ones I either ultimately came to regret, or just led to my life being more complicated for a while afterward.
If that’s the case, then I suppose this film was just designed to bug me out. Everything that follows is a tale of Del Mar and Twist, two men from rural settings with flat emotional ranges and deep-seated notions of silent, enduring masculinity, coming to terms with emotions and actions that contradict their own understanding of the world. They both marry and have children, they’re both found out by other characters, and they both spend something like decades of on-screen time living half-truths and lies. Their motivation? Fear of being murdered, in a manner explained by Ledger roughly halfway through the film (you know, the part where you put things to foreshadow them occurring again).
The relationship between Ledger and Gyllenhaal is believable. These were two actors who were clearly comfortable enough in their own sexuality to tackle portraying men in love with each other. Both manage this task while conveying the mental gymnastics it takes them to come to terms with what is happening between them, but even from the outset Ledger was acting circles around Gyllenhaal. Like Cromwell’s “English English” from The Queen, Twist’s “twang” is convincing maybe a third of the time. Ledger, on the other hand, turns in great work. It is a mumbly accent (put a bookmark there, by the way), but such is par for the course in that part of the world, in my own long experience; six years in West Texas will make you very good at parsing all manner of slurred English. His character is also inherently more interesting, as there is more conflict in his life. Whereas Gyllenhaal is married into money and gets his jollies off hundreds of miles away from his wife in Texas, Ledger’s Del Mar is native to Wyoming, lives in the same town with his eventually divorced wife and kids, and comes off as the more stoic and (sigh) “manly” of the two. It was strange to realize that Ledger would only be in another small handful of films before his untimely death in 2008. Sure he was in some schlock, and wound up being casted on his good looks more than once, but he could act.
This was Ang Lee’s third period film set in the United States and fourth American film overall (his first, The Wedding Banquet, was notable for its gay main characters of unequal acting abilities). The constant thread throughout most of Lee’s work is paternal relations, a theme which comes up a handful of times in this picture. Early on, there is talk of rough upbringing between both of the leads. Then we are introduced to Gyllenhaal’s father-in-law, a rude asshole who provides Twist a decent job at his overpriced farm equipment dealership. There is eventually a confrontation between the two, in a shocking moment of characters speaking their mind (another bookmark, please). Finally, there is a conversation between Del Mar and Twist’s father, who is practically a caricature of what people on the coasts must think of rural, conservative, homophobic, white men. It’s clear that Twist’s father had some inkling of his son’s lifestyle, capstoned neatly by Ledger finding evidence of his first encounter with Twist hidden in his childhood closet. The final scene does double duty as a scene of paternal contact between Del Mar and his daughter, and to hammer in the ultimate irony of the film: here was (and is) a country where any set of nineteen-year-olds in love can run off and get married for a few dollars, but two men deeply in love for decades are made to live in shame and fear, with double lives and the stress of ever being called a faggot among a set of peers who will take a tire iron to your face for being one. It’s a bitter pill. It should be. The film is wearing its politics on its sleeve, but couched in Lee’s general vision that there is an alternative vision to the present that is new, and will take an adjustment, but is less repugnant than the present. That’s why this film succeeds.
It also succeeds in being beautiful. Like the other most beautiful depiction of the American West, Malick’s Days of Heaven, Lee’s Brokeback Mountain was shot in Canada. Details, I say! The escape that Ledger and Gyllenhaal find in this paradisaical mountain setting, with wild flowers and a pristine river, are the sort of setting that any couple would dream of as an escape. For them, it is a safe and hidden place from the small town bars and houses full of people they are actively deceiving. Even those settings are shot quite well. It’s a pretty movie, with music that acts as a gentle introduction to slide guitar for people who hate country music. I don’t know if it was Oscar amazing music, but the Academy sure thought it was. They also felt that the film was assembled well enough, and told a good enough story, to earn Ang Lee an award for Best Director. But no Best Picture; why?
My two bits? MUMBLING. This film mumbles about a third of its lines. It is goddamn impossible to understand some of things said in this film without subtitles, which I did not use. I can appreciate half-heard words being used as a device within a film; shit, I think the ending of Lost in Translation is brilliant and nobody has clue what Murray said there. But eventually the mumbling starts to wear thin, as does the second act. The movie is essentially about this second act, seeing both men get on with “normal” lives and growing older. It just winds up being a little stolid and dull, until we get to points of conflict. At that point, the film starts to get across its other main idea: everybody in it is a bad person. Ledger is shitty for lying to his wife for so long, while she in turn is a coward for not confronting him sooner. Gyllenhaal just comes off as a whiny, preening prick for a few considerable swaths of the film, and his wife (Hathaway) morphs from a fireball into a cold woman by the end. Everybody is lying, and hiding things, and not communicating. Nobody communicates their feelings in this film to a satisfactory degree, except for Ledger and Gyllenhaal while on Brokeback Mountain. And even then, the times between those communiques is so long that there winds up being new problems. The film’s most effecting scene (the line is “I wish I knew how to quit you”, by the way) works as well as it does because characters are being painfully open and honest with each other about a terrible situation. Hell, I shed a tear when it happened. It’s a good scene, but it doesn’t erase some clunkers and some problems with the film’s delivery.
What I’m getting at is you can criticize this film, and even think it’s garbage, without having some homophobic agenda. I’d like to think that the entire gay population of the United States isn’t convinced that Brokeback Mountain isn’t the single greatest love story of all time, because it is not.
IS IT ANY GOOD. It’s pretty good. I’d really hesitate to call it much more than pretty good. The message is one that resonates with me, Ledger’s performance is a standout, and parts of it had me slack jawed at our pretty some parts of the planet are. This is a muddled by it being uneven in terms of pacing, literally unintelligible at times, and committed to a genre of music which, while I have some affection for it, will make some audiences grab for ear plugs.
SHOULD IT HAVE WON? No. I have seen exactly one film nominated for Best Picture out of the 2005 set now, this one. It seems like the Academy was really grabbing for straws this year, as nothing on the lists is leaping out at me. I had some interest in seeing Capote at the time, and Good Night, Good Luck was a topic of conversation in my AP World History class (remember, I was in high school at the time). Far and away Brokeback Mountain had the most buzz that I can recall. That makes sense as I went to a high school in Hawaii, had loads of LGBT (sorry if I’m missing some letters there) friends, and the rest of what was coming out was apparently unremarkable enough to leave no impression on my mind. I went into this thinking that Crash was the wrong film for Best Picture based on the Academy being on some misguided “We solved racism, guys!” bend that year. Giving “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” an Award is certainly not a good indication of the mood they were in, for instance. But I can safely say now that the real injustice, if there was one, was passing up Ledger for Best Actor. Hoffman must have pulled off a hell of a Capote.
To make this blindingly clear, I think it’s a fucking shame that LGBT folk have to live in any sort of fear. I’m proud to live in a region which is putting forth a better idea of how the world should be, and look forward to rest of the country and the world catching up. For the dinosaurs who see different expressions of gender and sexuality as morally wrong, Brokeback Mountain is not going to convince them. Working, living, and interacting with people of different lifestyles until you come to understand they are just other confused human beings like everybody else who as ever lived is the only thing that will change their minds. Failing that, I honestly am happy in the knowledge that those unwilling to see the light on this issue are a group not long for the world.
Next week, something much less politically charged. Or not; I don’t know the first thing about this film, except that it’s got Kate Winslet and Johnny Depp on the cover. Finding Neverland is next, and that title does not sound promising to me at all. Yay?
- If you’re planning on getting married and live within a hundred miles of the Space Needle, I’d be willing to be the officiant at your wedding for free. Leave a comment below to that effect and we can get started. I’m being 100% serious.
- Based on a sample size of two films, Days of Heaven and this one, I’m now convinced that all films with attractive landscapes which obstinately take place in the United States are filmed in Canada. Let’s see if that holds throughout this series, shall we?
- This week’s Let’s Play is about a very rank looking JRPG called Star Ocean: The Second Story. As a fan of sci-fi and of Japanese role-playing games in general, I was interested in scoping out this series in the chance that I got a PSP to carry its entries around with me in my bag. This LP has put me off of such notions.
STAR OCEAN: THE SECOND STORY, more commonly referred to as Star Ocean 2, is (obviously) the second in a long line of games that started out bad, got really fun, and then just went straight downhill from there and, thanks to Enix’s greedy-ass CEOs, is destined to gather no moss.
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell
I’m a born and raised American citizen. What that means is I have been instilled with a latent confusion and distaste for monarchies. The people who built this country watched their friends die face down in the mud so we wouldn’t have to fund a bunch of poncy hunting expeditions and keeping the lights on for a landed aristocracy. I was brought up believing that it was better to live free, and to pay my taxes to a government which will then distribute that money to a bunch of landed aristocrats who spend it on hunting expeditions. Irony. I love it!
But seriously, the inner workings of the English monarchy have never held much interest for me. Call me sexist, but this is a subject I’ve felt has always been more interesting to the women in my life of all ages. I don’t necessarily think less of monarchs, but the entire song and dance just seems like an unnecessary production in the modern age. If the citizens of a state feel it necessary to fund such excesses and are able to find meaning in having a figurehead to act as the state’s parents, that’s fine. England is entitled to its monarchy, until the citizens decide that they’d rather be done with it. If and when that occurs, one would hope it leads to dramatically less bloodshed than in the case of Revolutionary France.
What the hell am I going on about now? The Queen is a film about a remarkable week in English history when the common citizens of that nation, for a brief period, would have probably had global support for breaking down the fences to Buckingham Palace and throttling Queen Elizabeth II for her apparent disregard over the death of Princess Diana. Now, this is an event which I can only dimly recall. I was nine at the time, lived in North Dakota, and was honestly more interested in Goosebumps books than some princess. I had never really looked into the topic since then, allowing my imagination to fill in the blanks. It was a national tragedy for a royal and attractive person to die, and then Elton John happened to it. End of story. Apparently it was a little more complicated.
The film was directed by Stephen Frears, a man whose name I would have skipped over on a list of the other directors who will come up (some repeatedly) in this endeavor. The only work of his I am familiar with, prior to this one, would be High Fidelity, a movie I have not seen and probably starred John Cusack. Could be totally wrong there. Regardless, there’s some interesting things done here that could be attributed to Mr. Frears. The story could be boiled down to a conflict of styles, interests, ages, outlooks on life, classes, genders, and several other big concepts, between Helen Mirren’s Elizabeth Rex and Sheen’s Tony Blair, described aptly as having a Cheshire cat smile and generally looking like a sock-sniffer throughout. Blair had apparently been just elected to the office of Prime Minister on a general wave of anti-monarchist sentiment and a national interest in a nebulous “modernization”, and is surrounded by insufferable people. Elizabeth II had been in power since the Truman administration (for reference to my American readers), and had been watching former Princess Diana gallivanting about like a celebrity for some time prior to her death. What follows is a fictionalized accounting of how Blair and the Queen sought to navigate what were then untrodden waters of a global outpouring of grief, whipped up by the very tabloids which were probably to blame for her death, over a person who had divorced herself out of the monarchy.
There’s a lot of interesting character conflicts going on here, and it was fun to watch these characters hack out some sort of working compromise. Blair is made to work with, and ultimately to sympathize with an institution he was nominally elected to shake up a bit. The Queen, in turn, is pushed to bow to popular sentiments and accept that she doesn’t live in the 1940s anymore. There are other characters talking into ears, most notably the stellar James Cromwell as Prince Phillip, but the story is really just two people at opposite ends of their own popularity. This is important, because the environment in which this film was created (which I can recall) was at the end of Tony Blair’s tarnished administration, near the assumption of the short-lived Gordon Brown government, and a general return of sympathy and respect for the institution of the English monarchy. The final exchange between Mirren and Sheen is a general dressing down of Prime Minister Blair, and a reminder that the Queen has seen a lot of men walk in with a popular mandate. They generally left 10 Downing Street under dubious circumstances.
My cat died yesterday. He was a good friend and I had grown to love him quite a bit. Why does that matter? I bring it up because I expected this film to be more about watching the head of the English monarchy dealing with grief over somebody she had cared about a great deal. This film was certainly not that. It was instead a well-written fictionalized account of that eventful week in English history, one with a pretty good score and a nuanced performance by Mirren. That she herself was not supportive of the monarchy in the period this film analysed is an interesting anecdote; a more interesting one is that the actual Queen of England would invite Mirren to the palace after the release of this film. How’s that for modern?
IS IT ANY GOOD. Yes. The cinematography is workmanlike, and occasionally you will wince as Cromwell comes off as less of an Englishman and more of…well, more James Cromwell. There’s also some weird tonal problems at the outset where the film seemed to be a little overly lighthearted for where I knew it was going. These, however, are minor road bumps in a film experience which (to gauge my interest) I only put down to grab and reheat my very large cup of coffee. It also clocks in at less than two hours, and features a wonderfully cathartic scene of Sheen dressing down a little snot-nosed Labour prick during Diana’s funeral procession. Feels good, man.
SHOULD IT HAVE WON? NO. Let me tell you about this movie I like, a movie that came out in 2006. It’s called Children of Men, and it’s the best movie of the last decade. It’s a movie that has everything. EVERYTHING. Want me to prove it? Alright. Does it have allusions to Pink Floyd album art? Yep. Does it have Michael Caine portraying a delightful stoner? Yep. Is it set in a dystopian vision of the near future? Hell yes. Does it have a man being murdered by a cinder block in the single most visceral kill scene I can recall? Absolutely. Does it have two of the most carefully crafted extended scenes you will ever see, scenes of action happening around what had to have been the most talented Handicam operators on the planet. Yes, it did. Finally, does it have Julianne Moore, the most beautiful actress?
Leave this blog right now, and go watch Children of Men. You will become a better human being. You could do worse than The Queen, though. Especially considering they totally gave Best Picture to The Departed as a way of thanking Scorsese for not making more Gangs of New York-style schlock.
Next week, I’m finally going to watch Brokeback Mountain. Rather than have the balls to give this movie its props, the Academy elected to show off how it wasn’t racist anymore! D’aww!
- I’ve handled pet grieving pretty well, all things considered. His name was Ernesto Superfly Czernobog Hellcat Daisycupcakes Turds, and he was about fifteen years old. He hated people food, would drink water out of my cups, and loved to explore this big, crazy world. The time I got to spend with him was pretty rad. I’m not going to be in a place where I can handle having a different cat in his place for a while, but I will get there some day.
- Elton John as a person is alright. I like the idea of Elton John. The music though? Not really doing anything for me.
- This week LP Archive recommendation is a special one, the first I ever read. Animal Crossing seemed a thing I’d never understand or care about, then I read Chewbot’s dark take on the game and became a believer.
I’ve always heard a lot of good things about Animal Crossing, but I never owned a Gamecube. When it was released on the DS it received such positive reviews that I decided to give it a shot, despite the fact that it appears to have been created for small children suffering from down’s syndrome and ADD.
I was not prepared for the shit that goes on in this children’s game. The result is this.
I’ve documented the journey of Billy, a young, happy lad who believes he’s going off to have fantastic adventures at summer camp. The following images have not been altered in any way (other than to rescale them or to identify which dialog option is being chosen).
This is a literal and practically contextual account of what happens to poor bastards sent to Animal Crossing.
This is the true story of Billy.