The Reader

The Reader movie poster

 

Director Stephen Daldry (The Hours, Billy Elliot) and screenwriter David Hare’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel (produced by the late Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack) studies evolving notions of German postwar guilt and culpability. Unfolding across three distinct time periods (1958, 1966, and 1995), The Reader hinges on a significant reveal in its middle that recasts previously seen events. This is not to compare it to more infamous examples of stunt plotting like Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, both easier to introduce without spoiling their big reveals: Brad Pitt and Edward Norton beat each other up for fun! Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis investigate ghosts! Without its crucial piece of information revealed midway through, one would be forced to describe The Reader as merely a story about a young man who has an affair with an older woman.

In 1958 Germany, 15-year-old Michael Berg (David Kross) has a summer-long affair with a 36-year-old stranger Hanna (Kate Winslet). For him, the relationship is heatedly emotional and erotic, but for the strangely dispassionate woman it seems to be about fulfilling some unknown need or hunger that he (or the audience, yet) doesn’t understand. Her sexual advances are sudden and blunt, and he doesn’t even learn her name until their third assignation. She bathes him harshly and dispassionately, certainly not as a lover, or even a mother would her child. Hanna repeatedly reinforces their age differential by insisting on calling him “kid,” but reverses traditional age roles by having him read to her. As the summer passes, she more overtly trades sex for reading. The highly regimented Hanna has excelled at her job of selling bus tickets, and faces a promotion. We don’t yet know why, but she doesn’t want to stand out. She abruptly leaves town, cutting off the affair.

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The ReaderIt says right here in my contract that I get a half dozen sex scenes with you…

In 1966, Michael (still played by Kross) is in law school. As part of a seminar studying the Holocaust, he attends the trial of several accused concentration camp guards, one of whom turns out to be Hanna. Despite managing to hide in plain sight for years, she now unapologetically tells the truth, seemingly unaware of how doing so indicts herself. Michael is horrified to learn that what she calls her “job” was to be a guard at the most infamous of all evil places on earth: Auschwitz. The particular crime she is on trial for is locking hundreds of prisoners inside a burning church. Her more self-serving cohorts attempt to pin her as the leader, in order to lessen their own culpability.

One seemingly minor anecdote is told about her habits at the camp: she chose a few young women to feed and protect. The prisoners suspected her of being a lesbian, an exploitation they could understand, but she only asked in return that they read aloud to her. She would not protect her girls forever; when one met their death, she would simply select another girl. This anecdote is understood by the court to be an inexplicable quirk of an evil person, a mere matter of character, but Michael realizes the truth: she was, and remains, illiterate. Michael is forced to recast the meaning of their affair in his mind. In a way, he was also her captive, and she similarly used him for her literary edification (and not for, as his teenage mind would have fantasied, love or at least sexual gratification). Was he somehow to her like the girls she chose in the camp to entertain her? Did she do so out of self-interest, or to give them temporary comfort before they died? Or some combination of the two, a kind of tradeoff?

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The ReaderKate Winslet is shocked, shocked to learn there are naughty bits in Lady Chatterly’s Lover

Hanna could absolve herself of at least one charge. By admitting her illiteracy, she could prove that she was not solely responsible for covering up the church incident. But she mystifyingly chooses to accept culpability rather than admit she can’t read. The mystery of the character is how anyone would be so ashamed of their illiteracy that they would effectively condemn themself to a lifetime prison sentence instead of the 3-4 years that her cohorts receive. Michael could help her case by coming forward, but does not. Is he protecting his privacy, or effectively choosing to punish her? Both? In 1995, Michael (now played by Ralph Fiennes, looking and sounding more and more like Laurence Olivier) opts to give her a significant present from afar. He begins with cassette tapes of him reading, and later provides the tools to help her teach herself to read.

A key question is whether or not he has forgiven her for her crimes against humanity, not to mention those against him: breaking his heart and arguably sexually abusing him. Technically, Hanna is a pedophile. Such crimes are usually imagined as being perpetrated by men. Certainly, films aren’t made where a 15-year-old girl’s relationship with a hot 36 year old male might be seen as a sexual awakening. But Michael is in fact damaged; as he grows into an adult, his ability to forge solid relationships (either romantic relationships with women or as a parent to his own daughter) is stunted. When he first met Hanna, he saw her as adult and sexy. But in prison she is reduced to a childlike state, learning to read like a little girl. When the adult Michael comes to visit her, it is he that is the adult and she the trembling dependent looking up to him, even though she is chronologically much older.

David Kross and Kate Winslet in The ReaderThis rare spy shot from the set of The Reader shows David Kross and Kate Winslet actually clothed

Because The Reader is a movie, and movies star stars, and because Kate Winslett is gorgeous and frequently naked, one instinctively wants to sympathize with her character Hannah. But the fact of the matter is that Hannah is a monster. What makes the character interesting is that she evidently can’t see the enormity of what makes her, for lack of a better word, evil. The eminently practical Hanna does not seem to be a woman of many passions. She even seems surprised at first that the young Michael might be attracted to her sexually. When we meet her, she spends her joyless life alone in a drab flat and mundane job selling bus tickets. We later learn that she approached her “responsibilities” at Auschwitz with the same rigidity. She baldly admits to the events and what she did, not even really hiding behind the standard excuse of just following orders. In her mind, she seems to have been acting out of duty and responsibility to execute (so to speak) the requirements of her job. Hanna is so madly rule-oriented that she equated the subjugation of her prisoners to being a kind of protective responsibility.

A total lack of remorse is a sign of a sociopath, or of someone who is psychologically protecting themselves from confronting what they have done. Whether she compartmentalized her emotions or didn’t have any to begin with, Hanna was able to function as a cog in a giant atrocity machine, and to live on dispassionately afterwards. She must not be alone, for countless people operated just like her, making the Holocaust possible. Hanna is interesting to compare with costar Fiennes’ role as the Nazi commandant Amon Göth in Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. Göth was tortured by his attraction to a Jewish woman that his job (and German society at the time) dictated that he must view as less than human. He is an evil man who nevertheless seems more able than Hanna to faintly perceive his depravity.

Ralph Fiennes in The ReaderRalph Fiennes is depressed he’s not in any of The Reader’s sex scenes

Ron Rosenbaum took offense to the “Holocaust porn” aspects of both the novel and the film for Slate Magazine. Is the story “redemptive,” as Rosenbaum accuses? As I thought about the film more, I think that Hanna’s shame over her illiteracy was something to cling to, when she couldn’t grasp the enormity of her crimes. It was easier for her to allow herself to go to jail under the umbrella, in her own mind at least, of continuing to hide the much lesser of her two secrets. So, I don’t think the film and novel take the stance that illiteracy is a greater shame than enabling the Holocaust; but rather Hanna’s intellectual deficiency is emotionally easier for her to cling to than admit to the oblivious herd mentality that allowed her to rigidly follow the rules and help effect the Final Solution.

Rosenbaum also accuses the film of portraying ordinary Germans as being ignorant of the Holocaust. Perhaps Rosenbaum doesn’t recall the law school sequences in which Professor Rohl (Bruno Gantz), himself a camp survivor, holds a seminar with some of his best law students discussing German guilt and culpability. I found it interesting to consider the first generation of Germans (represented by Michael) that grew up after the war, surrounded by adults that lived through it and had varying degrees of involvement (active or passive). Some of the most reprehensible characters in the film (even more so than Hanna) are her comrades that deny that anything happened. The only character I can think of that may support Rosenbaum’s accusation is the war crimes judge presiding over Hanna’s case. He would have theoretically been in a position of power during the war, but is seen affecting outrage at Hannah’s crimes.

Personally, I found Hanna to be an interesting character, which is not the same as sympathetic. I would describe her as infantilized and not even really worthy of pity. My interpretation of the story is that Michael chose to punish her by allowing her to indict herself on the witness stand, but in her mind it was due to the far more palatable excuse of keeping the secret of her illiteracy. She avoided accepting her own war crimes in order to make it possible to live with herself. The adult Michael gifts her a belated education, which is not necessarily an act of kindness. Perhaps he believes that stimulating her intelligence and imagination might enable her to understand her guilt. If so, he utterly succeeds, for she kills herself. It’s ambiguous whether he suicide is about guilt or simply over her fear of functioning in society after decades in prison.

The biggest clue that the outwardly cold Hanna is even capable of having buried emotions and guilt is the fact that she is interested in books at all. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make logical sense that this cold, dispassionate person who seduces and fucks with as little emotion as she sells bus tickets, works in a concentration camp, or allows hundreds of Jews to burn to death, would have a love for literature.


Official movie site: www.thereader-movie.com

Must Read: Don’t Give an Oscar to The Reader by Ron Rosenbaum

Buy the original novel by Bernhard Schlink or DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Bottle Rocket

Bottle Rocket movie poster

 

Wes Anderson and co-writer Owen Wilson’s feature debut is based on their 1992 short film of the same name. Like Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Bottle Rocket is Anderson’s urtext. His signature style is already fully present: meticulously constructed of primary colors, written in torrents of words, and shot perpendicularly against exacting mise en scène. The Royal Tenebaums is the only of Anderson’s films to feature parents as featured characters throughout, but Rushmore, The Darjeeling Limited, and Bottle Rocket all concern misfit siblings with largely absent parents. Like the Tenenbaums and the Whitmans (of The Darjeeling Limited), the Adams brothers are privileged yet seem to possess nothing of their own.

Dignan (Owen Wilson) throws in his lot with local crook Mr. Henry (James Caan), who proves both a bad boss and poor father substitute. Dignan forms an amateur gang of sorts with brother Anthony (Luke Wilson) – an aimless young man suffering from self-diagnosed “exhaustion,” and their pushover friend Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave) – of use mostly because he has access to a car. Every detail of Dignan’s grand scheme for his life is plotted out in the handwritten manifesto “75-Year Plan – Notes Re: Careers.” As he tells Anthony, “I think we both respond well to structure.”

Robert Musgrave, Owen Wilson, and Luke Wilson in Bottle Rocket“On the run from Johnny Law… ain’t no trip to Cleveland.”

They feel the urge to steal (from a chain book store, hilariously, and even from their own parents’ home), not so much for money itself but to enable their fantasy of living independently on the road. Their dream is that being on the lam would provide the excitement they imagine their lives lack. But Dignan’s precise vision of the future is disrupted at every turn. The most cataclysmic event of all is when the romantic Anthony becomes smitten with motel maid Inez (Lumi Cavazos), and he gives up most of their illgotten spoils to help her. Dignan’s own future hasn’t factored in love; eventually he realizes he must set off on his own to find his destiny.

The 2007 Criterion Collection edition reprints a 1999 appreciation by producer James L. Brooks, in which he describes how the neophyte filmmakers had little notion of how movies are actually written and made, especially any aspect thereof involving creative compromise. Their first draft was reportedly so wordy that a simple table reading proved epic:

the longest entertainment known to man, beating Wagner’s Ring cycle before we reached the halfway point of the reading. By the time we approached the last scene, all the water pitchers had been emptied, yet voices still rasped from overuse, and there were people in the room showing the physical signs of starvation.

The script was deemed unfilmable, beginning a long process of urging Anderson and Wilson to cut material they held dear, and they held everything dear. The movie still seemed doomed even after successfully shooting a workable script. When early cuts tested poorly before audiences, Brooks tried to console Anderson and Wilson by telling them that early feedback for E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was also poor, but it was saved by the music and a memorable logo. Indeed, Brooks credits the score by Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo for helping make the film work.

James Caan and Owen Wilson in Bottle Rocket“This seems like a nice soirée”

James Caan only worked on the film for three days, and still seems bemused by the whole thing. But the result has proven a cult classic, and launched the careers of not only Anderson but also the Wilson brothers. The Criterion Collection edition also includes Martin Scorcese’s 2000 appreciation from Esquire, in which he credits Anderson with a rare, true affection for his characters. Dignan’s belief in his imperviousness is the flm’s “transcendent moment”: “they’ll never catch me, man, ’cause I’m fucking innocent.”


Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Pride and Glory

Pride and Glory movie poster

 

Pride and Glory was one of the last New Line Cinema productions made while still a semi-autonomous company, before being eviscerated by parent company Warner Bros. in 2008. For the morbidly curious, Vanity Fair recently related the sad tale in its latest Hollywood issue. Disclaimer: I worked for New Line Cinema through its end times, but had absolutely nothing to do with actually making or marketing its movies, and nobody there cared what rank-and-file employees thought about the artistic merit of their product anyway.

For still undisclosed reasons, Pride and Glory was completed in 2006, but sat on the shelf for almost two years. Director Gavin O’Connor (Tumbleweeds) publicly blamed New Line (and co-head Bob Shaye in particular) for burying his movie. Stars Edward Norton and Colin Farrel also spoke out about it in the press, clearly disappointed but yet more understanding (perhaps these seasoned actors were more jaded, and unsurprised by studio machinations). New Line countered that the sliding release date was intended to avoid the lead actors’ competing projects from different studios. It was eventually scheduled for March 2008, but not actually released until late 2008.

Colin Farrel and Ed Norton in Pride and GloryColin’s a bent copper

This attention helped it become a minor cause célèbre among online movie aficionados that couldn’t resist the bait: a scandalous tale of a suppressed masterpiece. But the sad truth is that Pride and Glory is a god-awful, depressing, pointless mess of a movie. Actually, that’s not fair; it’s not poorly made from a technical standpoint. Not to go out of my way to defend the studio, but it now seems likely there was no actual conspiracy to bury a misunderstood masterpiece. Perhaps New Line simply couldn’t slot the film into its slate, figure out how to market it, or was forced to shunt some projects aside during the stress of the imminent destruction of the entire company. Or maybe even, most unlikely of all, New Line had the sense to realize Pride and Glory just wasn’t a very good movie.

Also contributing to the aura of controversy was the bungled filming of a police funeral scene at the actual ceremony for New York City officer Eric Hernandez, accidentally killed by friendly fire in 2006. The production reportedly promised the family they would be respectful and stay out of their way, but reneged and clumsily intruded on the sensitive affair. Having seen the completed scene, I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t have been effectively staged with a complement of extras in full dress uniform.

Pride and Glory was written by brothers Gavin and Gregory O’Connor. As the sons of a police officer, they had unusual access to the New York Police Department. If their film is supposed to be a tribute to honest cops, its corruption plot must feel like a slap in the face. The movie’s fictional corrupt cops are wholly, utterly evil, with no gradations of character or motivation. Jimmy Egan (Farrel) and a clutch of fellow cops have been skimming money off drug busts for years, and have graduated to murder and selling drugs themselves. Egan’s brother-in-law Ray Tierney (Norton) finds himself in a position where he could turn Egan in. Complicating matters, Tierney’s pop Francis Sr. (John Voight) and brother Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich, brother to New Line executive Toby Emmerich, and typecast as a cop after his role in Little Children) are also in the force. Francis Jr. also knows about the corruption, but doesn’t have the courage to man up. If Ray does the right thing, it will not only tear up his family but the New York Police Department itself. But events conspire such that the good guys don’t have to act; three crooked cops self-destruct of their own accord, and the story reveals itself to the press. Jimmy and Ray are freed to settle their personal grievances as two stereotypical movie Irish cops ought: fisticuffs in a pub.

John Voight in Pride and GloryCheese it, it’s the fuzz!

I suspect O’Connor had pretensions to making another L.A. Confidential, but his result doesn’t measure up to the standards of such a superior film noir. Note the superficial resemblances: police corruption, drugs, family pride. Pride and Glory’s plot only seems complex, but is actually stupid-simple. Exposition scenes basically lay out the plot quite early, draining any sense of mystery or suspense. The dialogue is peppered with a torrent of names that are challenging for the audience to connect with faces, a technique that provides only a superficial complexity to a simple plot.

The tone is absurdly grim and totally humorless, and devoid of any human emotion beyond Ray’s grim sense of duty. The classic film noir element most notably lacking in this boy’s club production is any hint of women or sex. What few women there are in the cast barely figure into the plot. The most significant female character is cancer-stricken Abby (Jennifer Ehle), whose sole purpose in the plot seems to be to humanize husband Francis Jr. Pride and Glory utterly lacks the sense of verisimilitude of the television series The Wire, similarly set in the worlds of inner city drug and police cultures. Now is as good a time as any to state that The Dork Report does not apologize for taking advantage of any opportunity whatsoever to evangelize The Wire.

The setting is a version of New York City that may or may not actually exist. In fact, there’s an unusual disclaimer before the end credits stating its characters and events are totally fictional. Obviously, if there was an actual case of such massive corruption in the NYPD, we’d have heard about it. After the credits, there’s yet another disclaimer I’ve never seen before, stating that no one connected with the production took any money to promote the use of tobacco products. This Dork Reporter don’t smoke, and never has, but is offended by the notion that movies are influential in this way. Granted, movies are a powerful artform, and can affect people’s hearts and minds. The ills of society are real problems that require complex solutions, but censoring movies is not one of them. It’s a cheap and easy way for righteous fools to believe they are combating a problem. Where’s the corresponding worry that little kids will watch this movie and be inspired to grow up to be corrupt cops?


Official movie site: www.prideandglorymovie.com

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button movie poster

 

This Dork Reporter is slowly cooling on former favorite David Fincher. His underrated first feature Alien3 is highly compromised, but easily the next most thematically interesting entry in the Alien franchise (after, of course, Ridley Scott’s rich original). Se7en is one of the most gut-wrenchingly disturbing movies ever made, notable for having virtually no violence appear onscreen, despite its reputation. Fight Club is perhaps the movie of the nineties, an eccentric blast of countercultural fury. But almost everything that followed seemed a disappointment. The Game was wildly implausible without the pop and sizzle that carried the similarly over-the-top Fight Club. Panic Room was an empty exercise in style, seemingly conceived solely for Fincher to experiment with new digital techniques that would allow him to create impossibly continuous camera moves through the walls and floors of a city brownstone (and possibly also as another vehicle for star Jodie Foster’s persona as a single parent to be reckoned with). Zodiac was highly praised both as a tight procedural thriller and as a tour-de-force of still more bleeding-edge digital special effects (so good that most viewers wouldn’t suspect that many sequences were not traditionally shot in camera), but it did absolutely nothing for me. I’m wondering if I missed some key aspect of it that would open it up to me – and that perhaps I should reappraise it now that a director’s cut is available on DVD.

Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonYou’re only as old as you feel

The advance marketing for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button excited me at first, but I was apprehensive when I learned the screenplay (loosely based on a 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald) was by Eric Roth, the writer of Forrest Gump. Indeed, it did turn out to be constructed in a similar vein and tone, even mimicking some of the corniest devices of Gump: the famous digital feather twirling in the wind has been replaced by an unlikely reappearing hummingbird; Forrest’s mother’s aphorism “life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get” has its analog in the less memorable “you never know what’s coming for you”; even Forrest Gump’s parade of cameos by famous or infamous Americans is here continued with an appearance by Teddy Roosevelt. Against my will, this cutesiness did succeed in drawing me in for most of its running time. I was engrossed for much of it, but its leisurely three-hour running time honestly strained my patience by about the two-hour mark.

Fincher and Roth relate the decades-long story via the framing device of Benjamin’s (Brad Pitt) one true love Daisy (Cate Blanchett) on her deathbed, introducing her adult daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) to her biological father through a dramatic reading of his diary, with gaps filled in from her own memory. A soon-to-be infamous hurricane brews outside the Louisiana hospital room, shortly to erase much of Benjamin and Daisy’s milieu. The multiple layers of storytelling result is no less than three speaking voices to narrate the tale in voiceover. One framing device too far?

Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonCate Blanchett is a beautiful woman, but it’s eerie to see her appear to be in her 20s

The central conceit of the story is a fantastically unfortunate disease that afflicts one Benjamin Button. His body is born aged and decrepit, and ages backwards while his mind matures normally. As he aptly puts it when still a boy, he was “born old.” Taking this story as anything other than a parable or fairy tale would be to miss the point, but the photorealistic special effects place the movie firmly in believable reality. So this viewer’s mind (when not distracted by the high-tech visuals) wandered into logistics. Some of the rules don’t seem to hold up: as a chronological adolescent, he manifests the typical sexual desires and self-centeredness. But his aged body strangely has the physical fitness and stamina/potency to act them out (we see him preening in front of a mirror, seemingly only aged from the neck up). Also, presumably, Benjamin can be assured to die when his body regresses to infancy. So, given his physical state at birth, is his death date pre-ordained? If he had been born with an infantilized body of a 20-year old, could he have been assured of only having two decades to live? Is he impervious to harm? Indeed, he somehow manages to survive being stepped on as a newborn, and later, is one of the few survivors of a German submarine attack on an outclassed tugboat during World War II.

Benjamin is adopted by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), an unfortunately stereotypical African American character, and spends his youth and old age (and vice versa!) at the nursing home she manages. There, he meets his one true love Daisy, the niece of one of the tenants. Benjamin’s curious condition prevents him from having any kind of normal friendship or relationship with her, so he leaves home to find his way in the world. He has his first serious relationship with Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton), an older woman who thinks she’s younger than him (later, we learn that meeting him helped her change her life). Eventually, Benjamin and Daisy do meet at roughly the same physical age and consummate their mutual love. When Daisy quite rightly asks Benjamin if he will still love her when she’s old and wrinkly, he jokingly turns it around and asks if she will still love him when he has acne. But what first amuses eventually comes back around to become one of the most painfully emotional sequences in the whole movie: Benjamin does after all regress into senility (or perhaps even Alzheimer’s, before it was identified), trapped in the body of a pimply teenager. As always, the point is that the bell curve of a human life can be seen as a mirror image of itself: here, the impetuousness, aggression, and mood swings of senility are equated with the tumult of adolescence. Likewise, extreme youth and old age both are characterized as the ultimate states of dependence and vulnerability.

Tilda Swinton in The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonTilda Swinton as Benjamin’s first lover, an older woman whom he allows to believe is younger

The special effects that allow an aged version of Pitt’s face to be superimposed over another, diminutive actor are light years in advance of the still-creepy digital rotoscoping animation style used in Robert Zemeckis’ The Polar Express and Beowulf (although the latter is an excellent film in spite of the ineffective effects). But no matter how eerily fluid and seamless the effects, I could not shake the feeling that I was watching something largely actualized by animators equipped with a giant computer server farm. These obviously cutting edge techniques are more comprehensible to me than whatever the makeup and/or CG wizards did to make 44-year-old Pitt and the 39 Blanchett appear to be in their smooth-skinned and limber-limbed 20s. Also, it must be said that an artificially aged Pitt in his hypothetical 50s and 60s is a dead ringer for Robert Redford.

There must be something in the bottled water filmmakers have been drinking recently, for I’ve noticed a decided trend towards movies about aging recently. Sarah Polley’s Away From Her (read The Dork Report review) and Tamara Jenkin’s The Savages (read The Dork Report review) both look at the senility than often comes at the end of life, and how it may affect the lives of those still living, for better or for worse. But another pair of movies dealt with mortality and the fear of unfinished business through the lens of fantasy: Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (read The Dork Report review) and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York (read The Dork Report review). All of these movies tap into most people’s fear of aging: not only of losing physical health and thus independence, but also of the reliability of one’s own mind.


Official movie site: www.benjaminbutton.com

Buy the Criterion Collection Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

Ridley Scott’s White Squall

Ridley Scott

White Squall movie poster

 

By 1996, Ridley Scott had worked in almost every typical feature film genre: most notably historical drama (The Duellists – read The Dork Report review, 1492), science fiction (Alien, Blade Runner), and police thrillers (Someone to Watch Over Me – read The Dork Report review, Black Rain – read The Dork Report review). But White Squall straddles several genres, sometimes all at once: coming-of-age melodrama, adventure, courtroom drama, and disaster on the high seas (like later peers Titanic and The Perfect Storm).

White SquallThe Albatross boys enact The Lord of the Thighs (and torsos)

Aside from the rare exception of the fantasy Legend (read The Dork Report review), Scott’s films are always about adults. But White Squall features teenage characters and is relatively mild in terms of violence, profanity, and sex (no bloody gunplay or slimy extraterrestrials here). The frequently shirtless young male cast, including star-to-be Ryan Phillippe, provided lots of beefcake that probably attracted a large teenage girl audience at the time. But the core of the story is still about male bonding, duty, and honor, placing it somewhat outside the bounds of a chick flick.

It’s also unusual in Scott’s oeuvre for being based on actual events. The screenplay by Todd Robinson is based on the nonfiction book The Last Voyage of the Albatross by Charles Gieg Jr. and Felix Sutton. In the 1950s, Captain Christopher “Skipper” Sheldon (Jeff Bridges) and his wife Alice (Caroline Goodall), a doctor, ran a series of boating excursions on the Caribbean Seas for young men. The trips, for school credit, provided a kind of high seas liberal education focusing on self-reliance, teamwork, and literature. An onboard English Literature teacher (John Savage, who resembles Ridley Scott) was always on hand to be generally annoying and pompously spout quotations. Unbeknownst to the boys’ parents, Sheldon’s concept of liberal education also included shore leave with abundant alcohol and the opportunity to meet hot young female exchange students the boys would never have to see again. This was a quaint time when sexually transmitted diseases were more of a rite of growing up than a life-threatening risk.

Jeff Bridges in White SquallJeff Bridges pleads, “This aggression will not stand, man!” Alternately, the mast really held the boat together.

The physical task of operating the boat could be seriously dangerous, but one particular trip in 1960 became especially so in more ways than one. The Cuban Missile Crisis erupted while they were out to sea, and they were boarded by militant Cubans. After a narrow escape allowed as much by chance as by Sheldon’s quick thinking, they encounter an even bigger problem: dealing with a spoiled rich kid (I can’t figure out the actor’s name, but he looks for all the world just like Cillian Murphy). The seemingly cursed voyage ends in a mythical “white squall,” a freak weather event in which a sudden windstorm appears without the traditional warning signs such as dark clouds. The voyage ends in utter tragedy, and segues into a courtroom drama bogged down in lame speechifying.

The end titles reveal that Sheldon overcame his personal grief and professional discredit to become the first Peace Corps Director in Latin America, before dying in 2002 (read The New York Times obit).


Buy any of these fine products from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report:

 

Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me

Ridley Scott

Someone to Watch Over Me movie poster

 

Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) is more of a drama than a police thriller, refreshingly focussed on its characters over suspense and action alone. Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) is a salt-of-the-earth Queens detective assigned to protect material witness Claire (Mimi Rogers) from assassination. Keegan is a modest family man, recently promoted to the second rung of the police hierarchy. It’s no glamorous job; he spends most of his working hours just sitting around not finishing crosswords. He’s utterly unlike the over-the-top testosterone-laden cop character played by Michael Douglas in Scott’s other police thriller, Black Rain.

Tom Berenger in Someone to Watch Over MeAny dame what lives in a spread like this is outta yer league, pal.

Keegan is more-or-less happily married (to Lorraine Bracco as Ellie), but a man like him would never otherwise come into contact with a beautiful uptown girl like Claire. Cooped up in close proximity to each other every night, they inevitably lapse into an affair. Her effeminate but wealthy and powerful husband senses that Keegan is a romantic rival, but he is an effectively impotent character and frequently disappears from the film altogether. Also notable is song-and-dance man Jerry Orbach already typecast as a detective in a small role as Keegan’s tough Lieutenant.

Mimi Rogers in Someone to Watch Over MeWhen Mimi Rogers heard Director Ridley Scott was big on visual spectacles, this isn’t what she had in mind

One of the guaranteed pleasures of any Ridley Scott film is the visuals. Someone to Watch Over Me’s opening credits feature the namesake song by George Gershwin sung by Sting over beautifully sleek aerial shots of New York City at night. The final shootout is perfectly staged in a claustrophobically enclosed space, with huge mirrors placed for maximum dramatic impact. The principals stalk each other in near silence, punctuated by the wide dynamics of sound design. Perhaps Scott was competing with that other upstart master of cinematic shootouts, Michael Mann (in particular, the similarly explosive conclusion to the contemporary thriller Manhunter).


Buy any of these fine products from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report:

 

Synecdoche, New York

Synecdoche, New York movie poster

 

Whether it actually is or not, Synecdoche, New York has the feel of a very, very personal work of art. I know next to nothing about writer/director Charlie Kaufman, and don’t even necessarily feel like I do now. Then again, few people do know Kaufman, as he has famously managed to sidestep much publicity despite perpetrating a successful screenwriting career in an industry in which the cult of personality applies to everyone.

Synecdoche, New York is Kaufman’s first film as director, after a string of playful yet brainy screenplays. The best antecedents I can name would be the surreal satires of Lindsay Anderson (like O Lucky Man! – read The Dork Report Review) and the Postmodern deconstruction of Tom Stoppard (especially Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which wreaks hilarious havok with no less a holy relic than Hamlet). Kaufman’s hit parade so far includes Being John Malkovich, Human Nature (underrated! see it!), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Adaptation, and Dork Report favorite The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine are both pure pleasures to watch, but Adaptation showed the darker side of Kaufman’s brilliance. As I understood the film, the very life itself of screenwriter “Charlie Kaufman” (Nicolas Cage) slowly becomes the violent, sexed-up Hollywood melodrama he loathes to write. To describe Synecdoche, New York in shorthand, it’s as if the cynical, challenging narrative nature of Adaptation were crossed with the deep emotional impact of Eternal Sunshine.

Samantha Morton and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New YorkHere’s The Dork Report’s theory to explain Hazel’s enigmatic burning house: could it be an allusion to the Talking Heads song “Love -> Building on Fire”? I’m being serious here…

But what it’s actually “about” would take a lot of analysis to figure out, and my single viewing is not enough to unpack it (assuming my IQ would be up to the task anyway). Like Adaptation, it’s actually a little frustrating to watch, but in a good sense, in that the audience is constantly being challenged. I have to admit that I don’t fully “get” it, but I also think it’s clear there’s no single key to unlocking any one meaning of the film. I’m giving it the full five-star Dork Report rating because I have enormous respect for any such uncompromising, challenging, affecting, and frustrating work of art in cinema. That it was produced as a major motion picture starring numerous famous faces and released in multiplexes nationally alongside the more typical fare Saw V and High School Musical 3 is nothing less than a miracle, and gives one hope for the future of the film industry. At least four people walked out of the screening I attended, some during an uncomfortable nude scene featuring Emily Watson (not uncomfortable in that she isn’t beautiful, because she is, but because the sex scene is so utterly frank). It’s a pity they did, for they missed one of the most weirdly moving last moments of a film I’ve ever seen (although it did have precedent in Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, which also suggested the voice of God towards his supplicant is akin to that of a film/theater/television director’s towards his actor).

The closest thing I’ve seen to Synecdoche, New York is Spike Jonze’s Michel Gondry’s brilliant music video for Björk’s Bachelorette (Jonze Gondry is a longtime collaborator of Kaufman’s, and co-produced Synecdoche, New York). (UPDATE: corrections thanks to commenter Greg. I can’t believe I mixed up two of my favorite directors!) Less a pop music promo than a short film that stands on its own merits, Bachelorette recounts the tale of a young country girl who writes her autobiography and moves to the big city, where she falls in love with her publisher. A hit, her book spawns a theatrical adaptation, in which a young country girl writes her autobiography, moves to the big city, and falls in love with her publisher. A hit, it too spawns a theatrical play. You get the idea: the tale is infinitely recursive. But each copy is a copy within a copy, each more distorted, flimsy, and sad than its source material. Entropy and decay set in, and the world(s) collapse in upon themselves. Her life basically ends at the point she finishes her autobiography and looks only backwards instead of living for the future. Watch the video here:

Synecdoche, New York is a pun on the New York city Schenectady (the location of Caden’s original theater company) and the literary term for a figure of speech in which a part stands in for the whole (for example, “The White House said today…” as used by newscasters rather than specifying the administration, or even more specifically, the Press Secretary). Theater director Caden Cotard’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) artist wife Adele (Catherine Keener) divorces him and moves to Germany with their daughter and Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who may be her lover (guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait points out that this is Keener’s second sexually ambiguous role in a Kaufman film, here and in Being John Malkovich). Caden worries for the rest of his life that Maria is a better replacement for himself as husband and father.

Caden wins a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, and uses the funds to move to Manhattan and craft an epic play housed in a disused theater illogically large enough to hold a scale model of New York City as his set. Outside, the real Manhattan descends into chaos and warfare. At one point, the characters leave the theater and walk past mysterious civil rights atrocities such as clown-costume-clad soldiers herding citizens onto armored busses at gunpoint.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Hope Davis in Synecdoche, New YorkHope Davis, as the shrinkest with the mostest, offers to shrink Philip Seymour Hoffman’s head

Caden’s canvas is infinite, there is no script, and he hopes to find his story as he goes along. The play is in perpetual rehearsal for decades, and remains forever untitled. I hate to use this kind of cop-out phrase popular in college literature classes, but it truly is “a metaphor for life.” As Caden tries to find meaning for the traumatic events in his life, and to rationalize his decisions, he casts actors to play himself and the significant people in his life. Like memories being processed by the human brain, he is now able to replay recent painful events in his life over and over, giving direction to his actors on how to express their (his) pain, all with the emotional safety of knowing that it’s all just playacting.

Soon, he takes even another step back, and casts another set of actors to play the first. Reality itself begins to break down as in Björk’s Bachelorette, also featuring a play within a play within a play, cast with several pairs of other actors playing herself and her lover as their affair, and entire world, disintegrates. A similar theme of copies and doubles also figures into Adaptation: writer “Charlie” may or may not have an identical twin brother, shamelessly able to make the kinds of compromises necessary for success in the movie biz and life itself that he is too weak or too ashamed to do himself. Is it significant, as Kaufman moves from writer to writer/director, that the central character of Adaptation is a writer, and that of Synecdoche, New York is a director?

Samantha Morton, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Noonan in Synecdoche, New YorkA scene from Synecdoche, New York, starring Samantha Morton as Hazel, Emily Watson as Tammy as Hazel, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Caden, and Tom Noonan as Sammy as Caden. Got that?

Caden is beset throughout with a host of mystery illnesses that forever threaten to kill him but never carry through their promise. I caught at least two hints that he may in fact already be dead: his shrink Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) makes a seeming slip of the tongue and asks why he killed himself, and later, one of his doppelgängers (Tom Noonan) commits suicide.

The walls between Caden’s life and his play blur; which is real and which is the play? The dispassionate director watches from a distance as others do the dirty work of living his life for him, such as conduct his love affairs and breakups with Claire (Michele Williams), Hazel (Samantha Morton), and Tammy (Emily Watson), that he may not have the emotional strength or sexual potency to do himself. Caden eventually replaces himself and takes the simpler, less demanding role of one of the most fleetingly minor background figures in his life. Is he an actor in his own play, following the script and direction from someone else, an invisible external force… God? He essentially abdicates responsibility for his own life, and dies on cue.


Must read: exhaustive fan site BeingCharlieKaufman.com

Official movie site: www.sonyclassics.com/synecdocheny

Buy the DVD and Schooting Script from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven

 

John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven is Hollywood’s answer to Akira Kurosawa’s hugely popular Seven Samurai (read The Dork Report review). It suffers in comparison, especially if, like this Dork Reporter, one watches them in succession. The remake is quaint, chaste, and dated in ways the fairly frank original isn’t. To put it another way, Seven Samurai is a period piece of its 16th Century setting, while The Magnificent Seven is a period piece both of its 19th Century setting and its 1960 production.

A remake was inevitable considering the dizzying circle of influence. Kurosawa was a fan of the Hollywood western and especially of director John Ford, all of which directly informed Seven Samurai. Hollywood’s transposition of the story to the American West for The Magnificent Seven was fairly straightforward. Its great success led to three motion picture sequels, a television series, and is to be remade again in 2009.

The original eponymous seven samurai were actually ronin, masterless mercenaries akin to the Western outlaw: morally ambivalent drifters, killers with a personal code of honor. The Western genre is usually about outlaws, for the simple reason that they’re more dramatically interesting than regular plain folk. In both versions of 3:10 to Yuma (1957 and 2007), for example, the villain Ben Wade (Glen Ford and Russell Crowe) is a far more appealing and seductive character than the good guy Dan Evans (Can Heflin and Christian Bale). An exception to the rule is the classic High Noon, in which Gary Cooper plays an honest lawman who prevails under extreme duress. The biggest clue the magnificent seven are not classic good guys: Yul Brynner appropriately sports his trademark black hat. Upping the badass quotient and testosterone levels are no less than Steve McQueen (here getting to drive a real mustang on screen), Charles Bronson, and the very lanky James Coburn.

The Magnificent SevenThe meeting of the Badass Society is adjourned

The basic scenario is similar: seven American gunslingers accept a pittance in order to defend a Mexican village besieged by bandits. But the many alterations beyond this all reflect some very “Hollywood” thinking. In the original, it is enough for the samurai that there be an injustice they are capable of addressing. But in a Hollywood film, there must be individual motivations, which interestingly have the side effect of rendering some characters less heroic. Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) is convinced Chris (Brynner) has an ulterior motive, such as pilfering a non-existent gold mine. The dandy bounty hunter Lee (Robert Vaughn) is also along for selfish reasons; he’s on the lam for an unspecified transgression, and needs to disappear for a while.

The original Seven Samurai is actually technically comprised of only five actual samurai and two pretenders. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is a peasant posing as a samurai, and Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) is an earnestly romantic young boy seeking samurai training and adventure. Perhaps to economize the story, The Magnificent Seven combines these two characters into Chico (Horst Buchholz), a former farmer that worships the outlaws and attaches himself to them in order to become one.

So that leaves Chris, Bernardo (Bronson), and Vin (McQueen). In this remake’s best sleight-of-hand, we’re in the dark as to their motivations until near the very end. None of them are young men, and what drives them turns out to be the fantasy of settling down into an agricultural lifestyle. The gruff Bernardo befriends a batch of scrappy kids, becoming a kind of protective older brother if not a father figure. Chris and Vin seal their friendship with the mutual confession that they both hanker for a simpler life (a sort of admission very difficult for two very macho men).

The Magnificent SevenGo ahead and make our day

But many poor changes outweigh these aforementioned interesting ones. Being a product of Hollywood, it’s actually less violent, profane, and sexy than the original Japanese film. The Mexican villagers are wise and saintly, compared to the more realistically flawed farmers in Seven Samurai. The threat of sexual violence is whitewashed away; the bandits are not interested in the Mexican women. We see too much of the villains, and the chief bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) is practically a featured character.

But just as I was beginning to dismiss the remake as inferior to the original in every way, and of historical interest only, the movie darkens and becomes interesting again. The Mexican villagers, like their ancient Japanese counterparts, do reveal a dark side after all. Despite their initial success in beating back the bandits with the outlaws’ help, they have a crisis of faith and betray the outlaws in order to return to the comfort zone of their parasitic relationship with the bandits.

In the old west, an outlaw may very well find a home in a frontier town where no one knows his past deeds (a core theme of the HBO series Deadwood and the situation in which Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven opens). But in ancient feudal Japan’s caste system, a ronin could never take a step down and live among farmers. This also proves to be the case in The Magnificent Seven: Chris and Vin mosey on out of town and Chico stays behind, rejecting his pretensions to being a rebel outlaw, and reverting to his destined life as a farmer.


Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

My Blueberry Nights

My Blueberry Nights

 

Nobody films beautiful women, or should I say, nobody films women beautifully, like Wong Kar Wai. In Blueberry Nights, he has no less than four famous female faces to worship with his camera:

  • Norah Jones – Perhaps not the most natural of actors, but her speaking voice is as emotionally expressive as it is in her famously languid, evocative music.
  • Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) – Like Jones, Marshall is a musician and not an experienced actor, but her cameo is bittersweet and effective.
  • Rachel Weisz – The New York Times one described Weisz as “the thinking man’s sex symbol,” but here she portrays a seemingly thick character with a cruel streak.
  • Natalie Portman – Like Weisz, Portman plays against type as a troubled young gambling addict with an Electra complex.

My Blueberry NightsDidn’t Jude Law’s mother ever teach him it’s rude to reach across the table?

Wong Kar Wai’s first English-language film My Blueberry Nights is mostly set in bars and diners across America. His characters all indulge in the four great American pastimes: eating, drinking, gambling, and driving. It’s impossible to miss the central metaphor: every morning, diner proprietor Jeremy (Jude Law) ritually bakes a blueberry pie. Never eaten, it is thrown out whole every night. It may be undesired for the time being, but every day there is a fresh chance for it to find someone who hungers for it.

My Blueberry NightsNatalie Portman offers Norah Jones an offer she can’t refuse

Official movie site: www.myblueberrynightsmovie.co.uk

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.

[UPDATED AUGUST 29, 2008 to correct typo in rating]

The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption

 

It’s hard to believe now, but The Shawshank Redemption was a relative flop at the box office, and overlooked in all seven of its Academy Award nominations (losing the 1994 Best Picture to Forrest Gump). But true to its own themes, it found redemption late in life, on television and home video. It regularly tops the running popularity poll in IMDB.com, but has the reputation for never being taken very seriously by critics. In the Charlie Rose Show interview included among the DVD bonus features, director Frank Darabont pierces the legend that the film was poorly reviewed. The four or five most widely read papers in the country did pan the film (Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times being a notable exception), but nationwide, the reviews were highly positive. Shawshank: The Redeeming Feature, a British television documentary also included on the DVD, posits the theory that any critical disdain is attributable to its conclusive happy ending. The original novella and Darabont’s screenplay adaptation both end on an ambiguous note of hope, but the studio Castle Rock specifically requested a concrete happy ending. Darabont still seems to have mixed feelings about the inserted coda, but there’s no doubt it gives its appreciate audiences massive satisfaction and uplift.

Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank RedemptionI know what you think it means, sonny

Despite the movie’s wild popularity, it doesn’t seem widely known to be an adaption of the Stephen King novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (a clunky title without even a “The” to aid in its scansion). It’s an atypical work that deals not at all with the supernatural or the horrific, but King’s highly characteristic voice does show through in the sharp plotting, monstrous villains, and hilariously colorful dialogue. Seriously, did anyone at any time or in any social milieu ever actually call anyone “fuckstick?” Like many of King’s filthy turns of phrase, if they didn’t, they should have. Of note, Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption was originally published with three other novellas in a single volume, Different Seasons. Two more became successful films: Apt Pupil (by director Bryan Singer) and The Body (as Stand By Me, by Barry Levinson).

Tim Robbins in The Shawshank RedemptionGet busy living, or get busy dying

The Shawshank Redemption has its share of warm fuzzies, but repeatedly counterpunches with frank representations of the injustice of prison life, including rape, brutality, and exploitation. One glaring area in which it appears to wimp out, however, is its failure to acknowledge race. Racial tensions must have been at least as much of a problem in 1930s-50s prisons as they are now, if not more so. The original character in the novella was a white Irish American, and Darabont reveals in the DVD bonus features that Morgan Freeman was an unconventional addition to the cast, an obviously correct decision they couldn’t pass up. Perhaps injecting racial themes into the script at that point would have been one theme too many for an already overstuffed movie, but they do percolate in the background. Red, for example, reflexively calls even the slightest authority figure “sir.” Not only does Freeman carry a wholly natural gravitas (I recall a review of March of the Penguins that described him as “America’s favorite narrator”) but Red & Andy’s friendship is made that much more profound for the effective irrelevance of their races.

While most Hollywood movies are structured around adversarial relationships between male antagonists, The Shawshank Redemption is a rare tale of deep, sincere male friendship. It could very well be the greatest man-love story ever told, able to bring a lump to the throat of even the most macho of viewers.


Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.