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Degrees in film studies
Worked as critic and entertainment editor on a couple of newspapers
Into movies, MAD magazines, toy cars and origami
I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)
The problem with "based on a true story" movies, especially ones that are based on the lives and times of crooks is that it is never clear wear the "based on" starts and the "true story" ends or vice versa.. After all, if you're telling the story of a man of lies, then why should you stick to the truth, especially if the material is far-fetched and the main character is a stranger to reality. If the protagonist is a habitual liar then there is everything to gain by making him a lovable scamp who does no real harm and not have him come off as an utterly despicable creep with no respect for the integrity of the trusting fools who cross his path.
And therein lies the central problem with I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS: not only does the film have to sell us a potentially likable ticket-selling hero, but it also wants to serve up a politically correct gay love story which serves as the main motivation for the characters' actions. PHILLIP MORRIS is based on the criminal escapades of Steven Jay Russell, whose activities bounced him in and out of prison for a couple of decades. And it could have just told of his various scams, downplaying all sex entirely. But the film rather pointedly highlights his relationship with Phillip Morris, his mild-mannered cell mate who he drags into his life of crime -- making it play like a gay love story with a criminal subtext. Whether the film is a gay love story, which got made because it has a comic criminal subplot, or was a caper movie that had to have the gay plot included, is irrelevant. But the film is being sold because of its gay element and almost didn't get released because of the romantic plot. Yet when Steve's first wife, an ultra-Christian follower, asks if there is a connection between his being gay and his being a criminal, she is stared at because of her seeming stupidity, even though that seems to be a point the film itself is trying to make. Is it, just as Steve argues, that taking up a life of crime was necessary because being gay is so expensive? So, is there a connection between the two sorts of deviant behaviors? And for that matter, is Phillip really so naive that he fails to realize that Steve is involving him in his scams? And was George W. Bush actually involved in bringing Steve to justice or is that a dimwitted way to pump a bit it heavy-handed politics into the story, a back-handed, last minute attempt at painting a scoundrel like Russell as a victim of homophobia? Little elements pop up throughout the film raising questions as to their own veracity and casting shadows on the honest of the story as a whole.
There is a clear indication that as Steve, Jim Carrey is making a rare attempt at playing a character role and not just hamming it up as a comic character. Yet despite his best effort, his protagonist never quite reflects a reality. His southern accent as Russell isn't too broad and may be even quite realistic, but in the end it seems fake. While on the other hand, Ewan MacGregor's softer, less forced accent may not be as authentic, but his Phillip rings true. The two acting styles don't quite blend convincingly; their love affair does not convince. The film's frequent attempts at comedy don't gel with its obvious attempts at romance and poignancy, so the whole point of the film doesn't come clear. Is there genuine romance in Steve and Phillip's relationships or is Phillip being used as a pawn and being owned as a pretty young object? The scenes that attempt to establish the romance are clearly sincere, but they are undercut by the bumbling tries to make fun of the conman's broadly humorous con jobs. And the melodramatic efforts to play AIDS for both laughs and tears only leave a nasty taste. The various elements and contrasting intents do not blend smoothly, or even try to. Thus, you are left at the end with a curiously unsettling feeling for what the characters had for motives or how you are supposed to feel for them. Is Steve Russell just a career criminal or is he/was he motivated by feelings of abandonment as a child or was he an confused outsider with no real identity because of his homosexuality.
And should we even care? It would seem that the gay angle is little more then an excuse he uses to justify living an amoral life -- just as it is a flimsy excuse for making the movie at all. His targets may seem to be part of the straight world (bigoted businessmen and insurance companies) but he also targets innocent people (gay lovers and his ex-wife and little daughter who he abandons, supposedly to lead a more honest life as a gay man). In the end, he just seems to be a habitual liar with no desire to keep his repeated pledge to lead a decent life. If the film had been played as an out and out comedy -- a typical Jim Carray farce -- it might have worked. But every lie Steve tells is aimed at the audience as well. There are some laughs scattered through out PHILLIP MORRIS, but there is little joy.
The Kids Are All Right (2010)
...and the parents, not so much!
Nic and Jules have a good life. Nic's a doctor. Jules is a landscaper or at least trying to get a landscaping business off the ground. They've lived together for nearly two decades. They share a lovely old house and also share two seemingly normal teenage children, by way of a sperm donor. They care for the kids with unqualified love. Nic and Jules aren't married, but they may as well be; they quarrel and disagree and tease each other as any typical happily married couple would. A modern family, to be sure. And they are lesbians , so marriage is not an option -- at least not yet.
Their pleasant suburban life hits a snag when their youngest child -- a 15-year-old boy named Laser decides he wants to meet his real father and enlists the aid of his 18-year-old sister, Joni. They go behind their mothers' backs, find him, introduce themselves and discover he isn't such a bad guy. And he finds being a sudden father isn't that bad either. But even though Jules (Julianne Moore) likes the father/sperm donor, Nic (Annette Bening) isn't so sure. While the new man in their life, Paul,(Mark Ruffalo) seems like a good hearted, perfectly likable, open minded, liberal-thinking, loving individual, something doesn't seem right to Nic.
So far, so good.
But here is where THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT goes wrong. Not all wrong, but wrong enough. Jules agrees to landscape Paul's garden. They work together and find they are attracted to each other. And they fall into a breathless, uncontrollable affair. And what had begun as an amusing, likable, family comedy/drama, with a honest, convincing, gay-positive message, becomes a Hollywood movie. You see, in a Hollywood movie, there can't be a couple in a longterm, monogamous relationship without one of the couple having an affair. In Hollywood, marriages are made to be broken, or at least shaken. Two individuals can't meet without uncontrollably lusting over each other. And if the main couple is of the same-sex variety, then the affair must be with a member of the opposite sex. You see, within every gay person there is a straight person struggling to get out. According to Hollywood, there aren't really any gay people, only straight people in disguise. So if one member of a same-sex couple gets it on with another member of the opposite sex, well, no big deal -- promiscuity is to be expected in same-sex relationships.
So, what starts out as gay film about a modern gay family, suddenly becomes a heterosexual film with a little bit of gay on the side. It doesn't ring true and the audience should feel as betrayed by the film as Nic feels betrayed by Jules. After establishing she loves Nic, never once does Jules' lust seem true for Paul. And for that matter, never once does Paul's lust seem logical or honest for Jules. This is not a relationship made in heaven, it becomes a hackneyed relationship made in the mind of a Hollywood writer actually two writers, Stuart Blumberg and director Lisa Cholodenko. Jules and Paul have an affair solely so he can intrude on Jules and Nic relationship. It exists solely as a plot device. And this is dishonest for the film, which one can assume was supposedly about "the kids." Jules and Paul are practically family. And not only is Jules being unfaithful to Nic, she is cheating on Laser and Joni, as well. And so is Paul.
Now if the filmmakers just had to have some heterosexual coupling in the story, then they could have had both Nic and Jules both fall in love with Paul, seduce him and adopt their menage a trois as a part of the family. It might not be any more realistic, but it would at least take a fresh approach and take the story and the family in an intriguing direction, a three-parent, mixed-gender parentage. And it is established that Nic and Jules do enjoy watching gay male porn when they make love, so the interest is there.
Or to introduce conflict, make Paul not such a nice guy and a bad influence on the kids. He is, after all, intended to be the film's villain. Or make him a conservative Republican or a devout Catholic or a righteous Mormon so he will challenge the family's social and political beliefs. Or make him such a nice guy that he wins the kids over and they want to live with him. Or challenge the prevailing notion that a father is unnecessary to a modern family and make Paul become an essential part of the household and the one thing missing that keeps the kids' lives from being perfect. Let the unconventional family become a little more conventional. There are so many directions that THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT can go that it is just plain insulting for the filmmakers to fall back on that tired old "nice to meet you let's have and affair" plot twist.
On the good side the film's acting is fine and almost makes the contrived plot believable and the film itself makes no attempt at being pro-gay propaganda, just a film with the pretense of honestly being about gay people. So why does it swerve so drastically off course to misrepresent those people? But sex sells and there are more heterosexual ticket buyers out there than gay ones, so there you go. And THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT gets to have its straight cake and sell it's a gay dessert. It just has to sell its integrity to do so.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
If ever there were a working example of the word "whimsical," it would be the works of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll), i.e.: "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." The stories, stuffed with clever word play, non-sequiturs, train-of-thought chaos and general silliness, are not exactly funny, so much as just being playfully amusing. The reader like Alice takes a trip of wayward, unpredictable imagination. Tim Burton's film version (or re-imaging) of Carroll's tales likely will never be accused of being whimsical. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find a trace of whimsy in any line of dialog or overwrought image. Burton's film, while certainly being visually stunning, is also dark, and at times just plain depressing.
Burton has said that he never felt emotionally connected to the "Wonderland" stories because they seemed like they were just about a young girl wondering around meeting unusual characters. Which is exactly what they were about. Their unpredictable nature and inexplicable logic is what made them what they were: engaging, if somewhat high-toned, nonsense. Burton and his screenwriter Linda Woolverton have tried to tame the material by boxing it into clichés and a tiresomely predictable plot. He expertly keeps the visuals more or less right though he has made it all look gloomier and creepier but the literary essence of the original material has been tossed aside to make room for little that might be considered funny and even less that might pass for fun.
The story begins with Alice, as a little girl, interrupting her father's business meeting to tell him she has had another in a series of recurring dreams, presumably about Wonderland, and she asks him if the dreams are a sign she is going mad. A few joking and reassuring words temporarily puts her mind at rest, but the film reveals itself; the dream world of the little girl is now to be treated as a nightmare world that may be caused by or will result in mental illness. The story jumps a head over a decade later where Alice's widowed mother hopes to marry her off in an arranged union with an upper class twit. Will Alice wed the twit? Duh! The end is obvious as is the heavy-handed feminism jammed into the story.
Soon Alice (Mia Wasikowska) falls down another rabbit hole and lands in Wonderland or is that Underland? But Wonderland is now a bleak and ramshackle place, with most everybody living in fear of the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Alice eventually discovers that she is the chosen one, expected to help the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) save Wonderland from the bombastic Red Queen by battling the ferocious Jabberwock. Instead of a bewildered outsider lost in a strange world, Alice is now a reluctant messiah. Few of the oddball characters from Carroll's books have been retained, apparently to make room for an expanded role for Burton's favorite muse, Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter. Depp takes up far too much of the story time for a character who looks far more interesting then he really is. Worse, a hint of a possible romance between the Hatter and Alice rings false.
This ALICE IN WONDERLAND isn't for kids. Of course, the same could be said for the original books, what with their obscure literary allusions and now-dated popular references. Whether for commercial reasons or a sheer lack of imagination, the film is yet another childhood fantasy that has been re-written into an adult horror film. Like the disastrous THE WIZ and Steven Spielberg's overblown HOOK, a gentle and benignly scary fairy tale has been twisted around in order to supposedly explore adult themes. And as Disney did this once before, back in 1985, when they made RETURN TO OZ, a horrible and unwarranted sequel to THE WIZARD OF OZ: they've taken a colorful, playfully perplexing fantasy world and turned it into something unpleasant and uninviting. There's nothing particularly wrong with taking an old literary classic and looking at it through fresh eyes, if the look is truly fresh, but remains true to the original -- as, say, Burton did with SLEEPY HOLLOW.
Like the recent SHERLOCK HOLMES, this ALICE an exercise in dumbing down. Just as the former film takes Holmes and de-intellectualizes him, making him into a rough-and-tumble superhero, the later indulges in victim feminism, turning Alice from being a precocious, adventurous child into a sorrowful, reactive woman. Here Burton and screenwriter Woolverton become regressive feminists, changing a wide-eyed, curious little girl into a repressed, depressed and distressed woman who "takes control of her dream," dons armor and becomes a warrior and ends up being empowered.
And what does this empowerment lead to? She becomes a businesswoman. So much for intellectual whimsy.
A Single Man (2009)
George Falconer has a great life. Or, at least, it would seem so. He lives in a fashionable, upscale neighborhood, near cheerfully photogenic neighbors, in a stylish glass-and-wood house that seems directly out of Architectural Digest. He drives a sporty little Mercedes. He dresses in fashionable, conservative clothes. He is articulate and dryly humorous, assets in his profession as a literature teacher at a southern California college where he is liked and respected by his uniformly clean-cut students. And though he is discreet and low-key about his homosexuality, he seems fairly comfortable with his closet door being slightly ajar; surprisingly open seeing as how the time is November of 1962.
But George isn't happy. His lover of 16 years, Jim, died suddenly eight months previously, and George has been walking around in a fog of bereavement ever sense. On the particular day that A SINGLE MAN is set-- November 30 -- George is planning to end the evening and his life by committing suicide. That is pretty much what A SINGLE MAN is all about, George spending the day trying to tie up the loose ends of his existence so that his death won't leave behind too much of a mess well, no more of a mess than a bullet though his brain would surely cause.
Directed, co-produced and co-written by fashion designer Tom Ford, based on a book by Christopher Isherwood, A SINGLE MAN is a tasteful, somewhat understated, occasionally amusing slice-of-life (or slice-of-death?). George, as played by Colin Firth, tries to go through his day doing all the things that are expected of him, while working out the bits and pieces of business necessary to carrying out his suicide. Like cleaning out his safety deposit box and buying bullets for his gun. He has a pleasant, but lively dinner with his gal-pal best friend (and one-time lover) Charley (Julianne Moore). He has a nice friendly chat with a Spanish male prostitute (Jon Kortajarena) who casually tries to pick him up. And he has several encounters with Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), a handsome, preppy student who is all too obviously flirting with him and also all too obviously eager to consummate their relationship. Indeed, the aggressive, persistent and sweetly sincere Kenny looks as though he could be George's rescuing angel. Maybe, or maybe not.
All of this is told in quiet, elegant good taste. Ford captures, if not the feel of the 1960's, then at least the feel of early 1960's advertising. George's neighbors look as though the are posing for ads featuring typical Americans from Life or Look magazine. Scenes are frequently shot in choreographed slow motion. Sudden close ups suggest new wave cinema. Ford has an eye for a certain artful look. Perhaps it is just a bit too artful for it's own good, as it never really gets very deep into either the mind or the soul of George. Ford tends to fixate on the superficial look of George's existence. If the film didn't pause now and again to work in flashbacks of his life with Jim (Matthew Goode), it would be difficult for the viewer to immediately realize George's ultimate goal.
But you do care for George. He is a nice man, a decent man and a truly sympathetic character. Firth's subtle performance gently seduces the viewer. As the entire film is designed to build up to his final choice will he or won't he end it all - it is clear where our sympathies lie. Making the film's twist ending all the more disagreeable. George makes his choice then the story mocks that choice. A story that would have been complete and satisfying with a shot of George's suicide note to Charley burning in the fire place, instead continues on to show us that George's decision just didn't matter. Just as George is cheated out of the power of his choice, the viewer is punished for being foolish enough to care. A story about a gay man trying to take control of his destiny instead shifts gears suddenly to be a tragedy about life's cruel indifference to fairness and the ultimate fragility of existence. Whatever point the ending is trying to make is lost in the film's misplaced sense of irony. What could have been a bittersweetly uplifting drama instead becomes just another example of a gay man dying as apparent punishment for this sexuality. And what could have been inspiring, ends up being as retro in its thinking as it is in its sense of style.
Sherlock Holmes (2009)
Holmes, Sherlock Holmes
He's lean! He's mean! He's a kick-ass crime fighter and the baddest dude this side of Pickadilly Circus! He's Holmes, Sherlock Holmes!
When it was announced that macho director Guy Ritchie was going to make a Sherlock Holmes movie, with the intention of turning the renown sleuth into a rough and tumble action hero, there were more than a few eyebrows raised. With the announcement that the part would be taken over by the very American, very sardonic Robert Downey Jr. further puzzlement followed. The mystery being "Why?"
Holmes is a legendary character, and his iconic image is firmly implanted in our pop culture. The continuing respect for the character is rooted in that image, not in the actual quality of the mysteries that were devised for Holmes to solve by his creator Arthur Conan Doyle. The prevailing image of Holmes as being tall, slender, somewhat solemn and the epitome of Edwardian gentlemanliness is hard to shake, whether the actor in the part plays it stoically (Basil Rathbone), neurotically (Nicol Williamson) or comedic (George C. Scott). The decision to give us a Sherlock who is violent, belligerent and of questionable hygiene is the biggest mystery in SHERLOCK HOLMES if Ritchie didn't like the traditional Holmes, then why did he bother to make a film centered on him?
In fairness, Doyle's Holmes was not above resorting to physical violence and using a firearm now and again. But those were on rare occasions, the traditional Holmes had intellect as his primary weapon and that sufficed quite nicely. Ritchie's detective comes off as a pistol-packing hooligan who frequents Fight Club matches, whose residence at 227B Baker Street could best be described as squalid and whose personal appearance could generously be called perpetually scruffy. While the traditional Holmes was of the upper class, but who could move around among the lower classes, it is unlikely that this Holmes would be comfortable or be accepted among the titled. In essence, the filmmakers have taken the less savory aspects of the Holmes adventures and moved them to the forefront, for reasons that just aren't clear. Maybe the filmmakers thought a character with genteel qualities would just be too uncommercial for modern audiences. That is rather sad. There just was no call to re-imagine Sherlock Holmes as being down and dirty.
That is not to say that Downey gives a bad performance as Holmes, only that he comes off as being Holmes in name only. He gives us a passable British accent and plays the part with a degree of shifting moods. Indeed, had he not been playing Sherlock Holmes, and had instead been cast as an original character, say, an Irwin Smithers or a Nigel Butterworth, then maybe his work wouldn't seem so vaguely disappointing. A bit more of his impish sense of humor which added so much to IRON MAN -- would have been a welcomed addition and helped ease in the character as a tongue in cheek homage.
But to pretend for a moment this isn't a Sherlock saga, how is the film? Well, Holmes' attempts to sabotage the impending marriage between Jude Law's Dr. Watson and his future bride, Mary, gives the film an unexpected homo-erotic subtext that is amusing and rather sweet. Beyond that, with it's impressive sets and CGI effects, elegantly overplayed supervillain, colorful assassins, overly choreographed out-of-nowhere fight sequences and a long-winded and convoluted narrative about a super secret organization and a megalomaniac's plot to take over the world all makes the film seem less a Sherlock Holmes adventure and more like an Edwardian version of a James Bond movie. In the end, it would seem that Ritchie tried to tackle one British literary icon and inadvertently made a film about another one -- though still as a grungy and unpleasant recreation.
The box office success of SHERLOCK HOLMES could inspire other nefarious re-imaginings; like Jackie Chan as martial arts master Charlie Chan. Or maybe Jean-Claude Van Damme as an intense adventurer named Hercule Poirot. I can see it now: "She's hot! She's sexy!! She's the Hell-raising Mistress of Crime!!! Angelina Jolie IS Miss Jane Marple!!!!"
Well, maybe not.
"Remember, this is a musical comedy"
It is said that, when Federico Fellini was making "8 ½," he placed a piece of tape on the camera that read "Ricordati che è un film comico " ("Remember, this is a comedy"). One wonders if Rob Marshall, the director of NINE, the film version of the Broadway musical based on "8 1/2," placed a message on his camera that read "Remember, this is a soap opera." Fellini's film is a beloved motion picture, particularly by filmmakers, because it is a film about making films. It is about a filmmaker and how the people around him - mostly females - affected his ability to bring meaning to his work. NINE is more about the women in a filmmaker's life and how they affected his movies. The subtle shift in emphasis from the man to the women - no doubt the result of the stage musical's need to provide each female character with a potential show-stopper production number - also shifts the focus of the story from being Fellini's pseudo-semi-autobiography to being a rather mushy soap opera. A film about a man's look inside himself becomes a musical about glossy surfaces and overwrought displays of emotion through song and dance.
In fairness to director Marshall, he did have his work cut out for him. Fellini constructed "8 1/2" out of a his own life of turmoil and his own task of living up to his reputation as a renown filmmaker. It is, in effect, a film about itself getting made. Marshall, on the other hand, got this material third hand, perhaps even forth or fifth hand. Fellini's personal story, co-written for his film by him and three others, was adapted into an Italian play by Mario Fratti, before it got the glitzy Broadway musical treatment by Arthur Kopit, which Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella adapted into a screenplay for this glitzy motion picture adaptation. Unlike others, such as Bob Fosse with ALL THAT JAZZ and Woody Allen with STARDUST MEMORIES, who remade Fellini's story as personal statements made during uncertain times in their careers, Marshall seems to bring nothing personal to the project. But having passed through so many other hands, it is understandable how it might lack a personal touch. Perhaps Marshall hoped to make a universal statement about the creation of art, but the result is less universal than generic. And the director is neither of the stature or at a pivotal point in his career to be dealing with the same issues as Fellini. Or Fosse. Or Allen.
Repeatedly, characters in NINE talk about the great influence the filmmaker had on the world, but the greatest influences on the film itself seems to be Broadway (especially Fosse) and MTV. Despite being indirectly about Fellini and being based on one of his most important works, NINE only now and again tries to represent Fellini's view of the world, mostly in flashes of black and white imagery which are too fleeting to carry much impact. For instance, Kate Hudson's production number, "Cinema Italiano," which sings the praises of the beauty of Fellini's striking black-and-white visions, keeps switching to bold and brassy color, making it all seem less like a tribute and more like a trendy cosmetic commercial. Perhaps that is the point of the number, how Fellini's style has been misinterpreted as being only a matter of style; but that seems to be the point of the entire film. Plus, Fellini, who made all the world his stage with his Italian neo-realism, is pushed into the background as Marshall locks down most of his musical numbers on one massive set on a sound stage. Unlike in Marshall's CHICAGO, a film about a woman who dreams of being a stage performer, thus making the stage a natural home for the dream sequences, the decision to confine Fellini's imagination to a single stage seems to violate Fellini's world view. For all their glitter and attempts at glamor, the dream sequences only seem to weigh the film down; neither continuing the story nor commenting on it, they bring the drama, such as it is, to a standstill.
Okay, forgetting for a moment that the film is about Federico Fellini, but is instead about Guido Contini, a fictional Fellini-esquire filmmaker, NINE is still a mess, but not in the chaotic fashion of a Fellini film. The story itself seems to exist to connect the musical numbers and as such seem false and melodramatic. Yet, the dream sequences don't seem to blend into the narrative so much as they seem wedged in. As Guido, Daniel Day-Lewis gives a solemn subtle performance, though a charismatic, larger-than-life one might have been better suited. His impressive cast of female costars (Marion Cotillard as his wife, Penelope Cruz as his mistress, Judi Dench as his confidante and collaborator, Sophia Loren as his mother, Kate Hudson as a groupie, Fergie as romanticized sexual memory and Nicole Kidman as an idolized and idealized leading lady), all do okay with the material given to them, though each seems to do their piece of business, take their bow and leave. Scenes happen, but don't build to any great climax. Even the ending, where Contini opts to make small meaning films rather than grand epics about big subjects, seems incongruous with a film that otherwise tries to be a grand epic about big subjects. Despite its aspirations, NINE just doesn't succeed because Fellini's "8 1/2" was about something or someone; NINE isn't about much of anything.
Whatever Works (2009)
"On the whole, we're a failed species."
It is said that Woody Allen wrote the script for WHATEVER WORKS back in 1977, with the intent of casting Zero Mostel in the lead role, the "Woody Allen" role. Unfortunately, Zero died. Dusted off, updated and filmed three decades later, the film now stars Larry David. But if you use your imagination and listen carefully, you can hear Mostel saying the lines, and with his grandiose, over-blown delivery you can see how the sometimes bombastic material could be funny, or at least amusing. And for that matter, if you can imagine Allen himself delivering his own lines, with his uniquely whiny brand of self-deprecating sarcasm, you might be able to get into the material and story and appreciate the tone, if not the content. Unfortunately, the part of Boris Yellnikoff went to writer-turned-actor David, whose sour apple outlook gave a toxic tang to TV's "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The problem is that David the actor really isn't all that funny and he makes the character unlikable, but not in a funny way.
Of course, the character is suppose to be disagreeable - and condescending, bigoted, rude, snide, self-centered and misanthropic. But you can be all that stuff and still be unlikable in a likable fashion. Like Mostel in THE PRODUCERS or Woody in DECONTRUCTING HARRY. David just can't pull it off. As he schleps around spouting his mean-spirited insights about the meaning and value of life, while constantly reminding everyone who will listen that he is a genius who was almost nominated for a Noble prize, his Boris is petty, not pious, more abusive than abrasive. And not funny. Boris is not the story's only character, but he is the central character and thus, the voice the film, so that his unceasingly bitter brand of liberalism comes off not being cantankerous, but just plain mean.
Boris was once a respected - if medicated - physicist. But having forgone his meds and failed at marriage and suicide, he now scrounges out a living teaching and verbally abusing little children whose parents want them to learn chess. One night, in a particularly unlikely twist, he lets into his life and shabby apartment a teenage urchin named Melodie (Evan Rachel Wood), who has abandoned her family and home in Louisiana to live in the streets of New York City. He treats her with bemused contempt and she responds with wide-eyed adulation. They eventually marry. The question is supposed to be what would a teenage girl see in a 60-something-year-old man. The real question is what could a wide-eyed and optimistic woman like Melodie possibly see in a shallow, contemptuous jerk like Boris. The film's only explanation is that whatever works is what works. It works in the film only as a lame plot twist.
After setting up the Boris and Melodie union, the story expands with the addition of Melodie's parents, Marietta and John Celestine (Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr.). The Celestines are cardboard stereotypes of Southern Christians, prone to dropping to their knees in prayer with the slightest inspiration. Having cured Melodie of her religious inclination with remarkable ease, Boris (or, rather, Woody) find similar means to rid Marietta and John of their Christianity as well - the preferred method being getting drunk and having casual sex. And that is pretty much the whole film: Stupid Christians are won over to a New York bohemian lifestyle by learning the wisdom of self-indulgent liberalism. Allen doesn't even bother debating the issue: the Christians are ignorant by virtue of their traditions and beliefs and Boris is the smart one, despite his unending stupid blather, because he is a left-wing Gotham liberal. At least in his earlier films Allen would attempt to establish a verbal give and take between opposing views, even if he stacked the deck on one side; but here he doesn't even take the time to make his characters seem real, even in a Woody-Allen-movie sort of way. Allen doesn't bother treating the Celestines as real people because to him they aren't; they don't belong to his hermetically sealed clique of intellectual urbanites that have long populated his life and his movies. He could just as easily have written them as space aliens.
Woody has never been hesitant in expressing his atheistic ideas in his films, but they were usually encased in a cautious air of agnosticism. Here he is openly contemptuous of religion, and Christianity in particular. While noting that the teachings of Christ were base on good ideas, he adds that so were those of Karl Marx. I suppose the message in WHATEVER WORKS is that the Celestines were saved from the closed-minded bigotry of their religion by virtue of the open-minded examples of New York liberalism. But since Allen never even considers the possibility that there might be value and wisdom in the Celestines' beliefs, it would seem he is the one showing his bigotry. He never gives a thought to the idea that the "whatever" that works for some people just might be something he has never even considered.
High Noon (1952)
"Do not forsake me O my darlin'"
It is said that screenwriter Carl Foreman wrote HIGH NOON as an angry allegory about McCarthyism. The basic plot of HIGH NOON is fairly simple: In the western town of Hadleyville, New Mexico, word arrives that bad man Frank Miller is out of prison and headed back to town aboard the noon train. The just retired sheriff, Will Kane, puts off his plans to leave town with his newlywed bride in order to face the returning outlaw and his gang. But Kane can't put together a posse to defend the town; all the townspeople, while largely respectful of Kane, are either too afraid or are otherwise sympathetic to Miller. Thus, Kane is left to stand alone against the Miller gang and their threats of apparent violence.
In Foreman's vision it can be assumed that the Miller gang represents the House Un-American Activities Committee and all the conservatives who took an overtly pro-active stand against the threat of communism. Kane represents the few outspoken liberals who stood up to the bullying and found themselves alone in the street as the cowardly masses (the townspeople) hid in fear. Thus the irony is that Foreman wrote an allegory hoping to promote subliminal leftist propaganda as a means of rebuking the conservative assumption that liberal filmmakers might introduce subliminal leftist propaganda into their work.
But quite unintentionally, the film illustrates the flawed thinking behind McCarthy-era hysteria and behind any noble and/or sinister plans that Foreman might have had. The film can just as easily be re-interpreted so that the Miller gang represents the communists and their sympathizers, with Kane symbolizing bravely patriotic conservatives - left standing alone in the street as the cowardly masses hid in fear. Indeed, this so-called communist western is rife with elements that are strongly, if not uniquely, American; not the least of which is the central character of Will Kane. Strong and determined, albeit also fearful and uncertain, as played beautifully by Gary Cooper, Kane stands as a noble symbol of tough American leadership - be it liberal or conservative. Driven by a sincere sense of responsibility, Kane bravely stands his ground, even as many of the citizens of Hadleyville encourage him, indeed, beg him to leave. The socialist image of strength by the uniting of the individuals is pretty much brushed aside.
Thus, there is the flaw: Make it too obvious and the propaganda becomes too weighed down in its profundity. Make it too subtle and it might not even be noticed. Make it too generic and it becomes so open to interpretation that the message might be meaningless. In the end, the propaganda is only as successful and meaningful as an audience will allow it to be. Thus, as a "message movie," HIGH NOON is of minimal value; it is embraced for exactly the opposite reasons that its creator intended. But as a western movie, the film both embraces and rejects the ethos of the genre. In the end, there are many things to admire about the film -- and things that justify John Wayne's notorious disgust with it -- but being pro-communist isn't one of them.
To some extent, HIGH NOON is the thinking man's western. Until the very end, there isn't much action in the film; but there is a lot of discussion, bargaining, theorizing and explaining. To some degree, the story would work as a play. As Kane goes from one to another, all the townsfolk have their reasons for not standing with the sheriff: some are afraid, some have families, some too old, some too weak. Some just don't see it as their fight to fight. The cowardly masses aren't so much cowardly as reluctant to look for trouble. In a way, Kane isn't just the last defense against encroaching trouble, he is the lightning rod that attracts it. The war with the Miller gang is his battle, it is part of a war that he took on, even if it was on behalf of people who ultimately turn their backs on him. His feelings of betrayal by his fellow man are just, made all the worst by the realization that he really can't argue with them and has no means to force them to help. And that, oddly enough, is what makes the film so American.
In the traditional western, such as Wayne's RIO BRAVO, they might be reluctant to take up arms, but in the end the citizens would stand up for what is right. And they would do so for their own reasons. In HIGH NOON, the citizens refuse to help, also for their own reasons. Wayne's view of America might be more positive and Foreman's more negative, but they both see the same America; a country based on the right of individuals to decide for themselves, free of the heavy hand of governmental power. It is that freedom, which for better or worse, makes America. Foreman sees that as a flaw, not a simple American reality. The townspeople may be wrong to refuse to help, but it is their right. Whatever the consequences.
HIGH NOON is a revisionist western. John Wayne's beloved image of the west, wherein the sharing of hardships binds the citizens together is supplanted by a new image, where the successful establishment of a town separates and disunites the citizens. Brave as he may be, Will Kane is also foolish in believing that by making their battle his battle during dark days that they will continue to follow his lead when times are good. In giving the townspeople the safety of civilization, Kane has also given them the freedom to question his wisdom and to say no to his pleas. In the end, like so many leaders, Kane leaves town, bitter and forsaken; feeling his sacrifices are unappreciated, his victory empty.
Is it any wonder that HIGH NOON is the favorite film of American presidents, be it Bill Clinton or George W. Bush?
The Front (1976)
Front and off center
The McCarthy blacklisting era was a most peculiar time in America. On the one hand you had conservatives who felt fully justified in defending the rights and freedoms of Americans by supporting an ad hoc system that stripped some Americans of their rights and freedoms without any sort of due process or legal avenues. On the other hand, you had liberals who defended the rights and freedoms of those who advocated a political system that by its nature would strip Americans of their rights and freedoms. And there were quite a few people who were trapped in between, forced to choose either their freedom to think for themselves or their right to live their lives in peace.
The only people not greatly effected it seems were the source of the confrontation, the communists. Though few in number and largely ineffectual as a group (at least, in America), they no doubt sat back and amused themselves as the country was being forced into two bitter camps. Had they had any real power within the United States, all the hub-bub about the communist influence might have served a purpose. But in reality it was hysteria over a non-existent threat, or a barely existent one. In hindsight, the panic over the Red Menace seems like the premise for a comic farce.
THE FRONT isn't such a farce. Though it does star Woody Allen during his "early, funny" years and it is structured like a comedy, THE FRONT is a drama. It uses the talents of many who were blacklisted - director Martin Ritt, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, and actors Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, Joshua Shelley and Lloyd Gough -- and it tries to focus on those in the middle who lost their livelihoods and reputations because they were considered "pink," ordinary citizens whose paths crossed those of others who may or may not have been communists. Guilt, or at least proof of it, was irrelevant; the mere suspicion of being a communist sympathizer was enough to deny individuals the right to work in their chosen field, the cost being their careers, their families and even their lives. In the view of the House Un-American Activities Committee, you were either on their side or a threat to the very fiber of the American being. It was mostly played out in the political arena, but as with most politics it seeped into the pop culture. Perhaps because the government had relied so much on the media for propaganda purposes during WWII, the fear of its power was strong.
In THE FRONT, Allen plays Howard Prince a part time bookie. When a friend of his, a writer for a network TV show, gets blacklisted, the friend persuades Howard to act as his proxy. The writer will create the scripts for the show, but Howard will submit them under his name, for a cut of the commission. The scam works so well that soon Howard is fronting for several other writers as well - and Howard's reputation as a prolific and versatile author starts to grow. The complications come when Howard is expected to do on-the-spot rewrites of the material, and when he is suspected of red ties due to his friendship with the real liberal writers. As he sees first hand the dangers of the blacklisting, he also grows a conscience. Not a bad premise for a movie, even a comedy.
One would think, with the involvement of those who were scarred by the blacklisting playing such a prominent role in the film, that THE FRONT would pulsate with a certain degree of rage. But it doesn't; the film isn't so much angry as it is wistful. It is not a question of the honesty of the material so much as the quiet feeling of hopelessness that pervades the story. The story unfolds in a slow, deliberate fashion, occasionally sticking in a joke or two, but mostly just reliving the past in a sad monotone. Perhaps it is supposed to be a reflection of the era the film is about, the 1950s, an era of passivity. Or maybe it is a reflection of the era in which the film was made, the 1970s -- after the chaos of the 1960s, maybe McCarthyism had just lost its power to scare. Either way, neither Ritt nor Bernstein inject much passion into the tale. Likewise, the characters lack depth; the bad guys who support the blacklisting are cold and mechanical (heaven forbid they might be acting out of genuine patriotism), while the good guys are either pure and passionate in their left-wing leanings or guileless innocents bewildered by it all. Thoughtful and low-key, THE FRONT is certainly sincere, but it isn't insightful and doesn't carry much of a punch.
Even the big finale lacks power; after playing an ineffectual verbal game of cat and mouse with a HUAC subcommittee, Howard drops the "F-bomb" in a moment that is supposed to be shocking. Though it is jarring, it is because it is so pointless as a gesture. Did Ritt and Bernstein really think that uttering the F-word would jolt audiences in 1976? Even now, are we suppose to see such a foolish gesture as an act of courage on Howard's part? It is a key moment in the story and comes off as being just, well, stupid. In the end, Howard ends up going to jail, presumably on contempt of court charges; but is Howard's childish act of defiance really an heroic action? He takes a stand, but doesn't make much of a point. And neither does the movie.
If you are in the right mood, BARBARELLA can be viewed as an amusing piece of campy silliness. If you aren't in the right mood, in may come off as a stupefyingly insipid piece of soft-core almost-but-not-quite-porn. BARBARELLA was pretty hot stuff for it's time, with a broadly played comic book approach, mixed with a touch of the psychedelic, it rather boldly exploited sex in the spirit, if not the style, of Playboy magazine. Whether its low-budget tackiness is a result of its design or a result of actually having a low budget isn't clear, but certainly its amateurish quality gives it a distinctive style which is either part of its charm or part of its curse. Depending on your mood. An amusing distraction while watching it might be trying to determine what part of it is the cheesiest: the sex, the special effects, the set design or it's cheerfully chirpy musical score. My vote would go to the costume design; no doubt created to make Barbarella look outrageously sexy, all of Jane Fonda's many changes in wardrobe look as though they had been borrowed from a particularly low-rent/high-tech strip club.
The story takes place in the 40th century, where Barbarella is some sort of agent from the Republic of Earth. She is ordered to go to the planet SoGo to find Dr. Durand Durand and to stop him from using some sort of weapon he has invented. That's not much of a plot, but it is enough to get Barbarella started on her real agenda, having sex.
Probably the key weakness with the film is the pivotal miscasting of Fonda as the title character. She is just fine with the central demands of the role, the numerous instances of gratuitous nudity; however Fonda has never excelled in comedy and is even less effective at playing wide-eyed innocents. Fonda just can't play dumb and being at least a bit spaced out is a basic characteristic of Barbarella. Other than a few moments here and there where it is clear that Fonda realizes just how ridiculous the material is, she otherwise plays it straight, which is not to the film's benefit. Fonda's star was on the rise at the time, a starlet winning acceptance as a serious actress, and she was just on the verge of becoming a political activist. Having such a prominent star take a role in such a, well... sleazy production must have been quite a coup though at the time being the wife of the director, Roger Vadim, no doubt, had a great influence on her taking the part. Even so, you get the feeling that Vadim is exploiting his wife to promote his career, rather than showing much concern for hers.
BARBARELLA isn't without it's nice touches. For one, there is David Hemmings as a would-be revolutionary who can't hide his embarrassment when his technological gadgets don't work right. And John Phillip Law is blissfully serene as a blind, but rather hunky, angel who captures the sense of innocence that escapes Fonda. On the whole, however, (unlike Miss Fonda herself) BARBARELLA hasn't aged well. It's trippy attitude and wishful views of intergalactic politics was naïve then and just dopey now. Yet BARBARELLA is one of those films that wasn't appreciated in its day (and still isn't very good) but has nonetheless achieved cult status. And admittedly making a film so off beat, that blends fairy tales and politics and sex, even if it fails, does take a certain boldness (and possibly certain illegal substances).