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Another distinctive masterwork from Morris
Errol Morris has always been fascinated with characters that make excuses for their past offences. In Mr. Death, he pointed his famous, intimacy-capturing Interratron camera at a specialist in capital punishment who was trying to construct the kinder, gentler electric chair before he was unknowingly duped by hubris-exploiting white supremacists into proving-in his mind and theirs-that the Jewish Holocaust never happened. What makes The Fog of War so amazing, and so perfect for our times, is the fact that it sympathetically examines Robert S. McNamara, leader of a World War II raid on Tokyo that killed 100,000 people, the man who claims that he introduced safety features like seat belts to the Ford Motor company (even though it was probably the eventually-crushed Preston Tucker who did this), and was the often hawkish Secretary of Defense under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (and therefore both advised on the saving of the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the destruction of it during the Vietnam War). Morris unerringly points his camera at a man who, at the end of his life, is making a serious reevaluation of his world-changing actions, and is sincerely worried, moved to think, that he may have made the wrong choices.
In this way, it makes a perfect companion piece to many of the films at the New York Film Festival this year. Richard Pena, the festival's programmer, is known to make his politics obvious in his and his jury's choices, and this year, in the midst of this country's and, unfortunately, his world's often dubious moral selections, he is wondering if the paths we are taking are the correct ones. Over and over again, particularly in the movies that I chose to see at the festival, is seems that the theme is `We better think, and think hard, about what we are doing, because it is just that which will determine what we will do in the future' Of course, this isn't all up to Pena-it's obviously a theme the filmmakers are they themselves coming to. We are on the verge of a new era in moviemaking, and the concerns of it are before us in these works at the 41st New York Film Festival. Morris' The Fog of War made me realize this.
At the press conference after the film, Morris stated that he began this film before the events of 9/11 visited us. He also admitted, when one journalist asked him if he liked Robert S. McNamara, that, yes, he did indeed like him, amazingly, even though Morris actively demonstrated against his policies during the 1960s. If anything proves the remittable side of truly progressive minds, this does. Here, on film, is forgiveness towards a once apparently inhuman human that, at one point, from the filmmaker's perspective, seemed impossible to achieve. The Fog of War is a document of understanding, of compassion, of repentance, reflection and humanism. Edited with quicksilver style, scored with Philip Glass' unmistakable tonal existential dread, and photographed with peculiar beauty (Morris admitted some of his favorite shots of the film involve padded skulls being dropped from great heights, all in the service of illustrating McNamara's obsession with greater car safety), it's a masterpiece just as are the rest of Morris' career works.
Mystic River (2003)
Perhaps Eastwood's best as a producer/director.
Clint Eastwood uses his trademarked helicopter shots better then he ever has in Mystic River, and their meaning has extra portent here: God watches over us all, but is ironically not always present. Easily the director's best work since 1992's Unforgiven, it asks a parade of important questions about fate, which make it perfect movie-material, since films are all about, in Lars Von Trier's words, `the God's-eye-view.' Shot by Tom Stern in a burnished, nostalgic style that, even in its mostly present-day sequences, suggests that its characters are permanently mired down by the past, it begins with young Boston punk Jimmy Markum enticing his buddies Dave and Sean into scratching their names into freshly-poured cement. Dave is the last to print, but before he's done, he'll be lured by fear and insecurity into a car ride that changes his life for the worse.
Suddenly, before the horror of this situation fully sinks in, we're vaulted thirty years later into the boys' adult lives. Jimmy (Sean Penn), hair streaked gray and skin prison-weathered, is now the owner of a corner store, a longtime widower of a woman who bore him one daughter, Katie (Emily Rossum), then promptly died of cancer before she could see her husband free from a liquor store robbery rap. Now remarried to Annabeth (a tough Laura Linney), and with a new passel of children, Jimmy seems to have found equilibrium in his life. Meanwhile, Dave (Tim Robbins) is the haunted father of a boy who himself carries the weight of Dave's troubled past, who can't find the joy in simply playing baseball because he feels that his failures weigh on his dad even further. Dave is now married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), a shell-shocked housewife who dances as fast as she can to keep up with Dave's neuroses, but is soon to be overcome by an event that tests her faith in her husband's sanity.
The third in the triumvirate, Sean (Kevin Bacon), along with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne, excellent as the film's one detached, reasonable character), is called out to a Boston crime scene. Sean has long since lost contact with his old friends, but the past is constantly hectoring him. Bedeviled by a damaged wife who ran away with their child and makes silent long-distance phone calls to her emotionally needy but distant husband (in the film's one overly-sentimental device), Sean has thrown himself wholly into his detective work as a way of forgetting all he's been through. When he and Whitey are called into his old neighborhood, Buckingham Flats, on a murder investigation, Sean knows this can't be good; Bacon's face shows the gravity of a life lived experiencing death in a myriad of forms.
Thus begins an overcast story that mirrors Unforgiven in profound ways. Whereas the Oscar-winning western explored the mercenary past of perpetrators who are constantly lying to each other and themselves, Mystic River takes the more difficult road in examining the indefensible crimes of victims: the crime of making wrong choices, of not fighting back, of not taking a stand and following long-held faiths in gods and loved ones. Because of this, Mystic River is one of the saddest movies I've ever seen, a whooshing, screaming peer into the lycanthropic existence of nightcrawlers who've been bitten by violence and betrayal.
Certainly the centerpiece of the film is a scene between Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden, where Dave's demons come raring to the surface in a room illuminated only by the flickering image of a horror film on the television. Robbin's eyes burn through the screen as he brings us into Dave's firefly-ridden world of werewolves, vampires, and aliens. The allegory is quite apt, and heartbreaking, just as the stories of such horror characters often are; once infected, victims like Dave only have to wait for the soul's full moon before they are once again transformed into a monster that knows not what he or she does. Robbins' performance is a standout in his career, and certainly marks him as the frontrunner for a slew of yearend awards. He is tortured, panicked, darkened, confused, and dead inside. Harden, too, stands out in this cast, with a character that's buffeted between truth and fiction, between perceived loyalty to a husband she's starting to mistrust, and a larger morality that demands she do the right thing, even if it might be the wrong thing.
Eastwood is lucky to have Stern's shadowy yet sun-drenched photography at his disposal-it makes Mystic River into a sullen tone poem. Eastwood's longtime collaborators also make essential contributions: Joel Cox's editing is tensely precise, particularly in the film's final third; production designer extraordinaire Henry Bumstead (whose credits, incredibly, include Vertigo, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Sting, and Slaughterhouse-Five) produces a Boston that is palpably real, and closing in on its inhabitants; and composer Lennie Niehaus, who takes second billing to Eastwood for the (mostly) subtle, piano-driven score that hardly ever pushes our buttons. And we must pay tribute to Brian Helgeland's driven script, his best since his dealings with Curtis Hanson on L.A. Confidential. Working from novelist Dennis Lehane's best-selling source material, he and Eastwood have fleshed out an intimate, tasteful, cynical look at those who let themselves be whisked away and ruined by wickedness, and those follow but refuse to feel bad about it.
Böse Zellen (2003)
Unsatisfying Altmanesque exercise
Barbara Albert's Altman-by-way-of-Austria was the least impressive movie I saw at the festival. Following the life of a woman named Manu, the only survivor of a plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico, Free Radicals branches off into the troubled lives of her satellites, her friends who fight off loneliness with the same fervor that she does. Their circumstances are no less tragic to them; one overweight woman is so despondent in her loneliness that she throws herself in front of a train (and survives, ridiculously). Another fights with an older, crippled lover who beats her if she comes in late. Manu's daughter dances briefly and sweetly with a guitarist who plays `San Francisco' for her in a subway station. The idea here is that we are all interconnected, but the movie plays this with embarrassing sentimentality. It has its moments-I love the scene where members of a church choir sing along with `Nights in White Satin' in a darkened pub-but overall, Free Radicals feels juvenile.
A Little Romance (1979)
The most perfect film ever made about love and romance, unsullied by sex and ego, raised heavenward by pure joy.
I saw "A Little Romance" for the first time in 1979 when I walked, at 13 years old, to the Toco Hills Theater, which I lived next to, to see it on what was then the biggest screen in the Southeastern United States. Taking in the vivid beauty of France and Italy from this great movie was one thing, but to be fully introduced to the wonders of love in the meantime was quite something else. I believe that this movie, more than any of the myriad of films I have seen in my lifetime, has shaped me in the most profound of ways, the ways that really don't have anything to do with my love of movies, but with my love of women, and my love of romance. The concept of love will never be the same for me, because I so identified with the movie-loving Daniel (Thelonious Bernard) in all of his fascination with Bogart, Redford, Deneuve, Newman, and Bacall. I knew he knew what he was talking about when it came to movies, and I knew he was, in more than that way, way ahead of his peers. I also knew he didn't fall in love easily and, for all of these reasons, I knew when he met Lauren (Diane Lane), his whole world had changed. Finally he knew that the world was not such a lonely place for him, that somehow this American girl had found her way to him and had proven love was a possibility, that indeed someone could understand him, be with him, love him. As an intelligent boy just realizing that none of the girls around him were quite up to speed, this appealed to me greatly. The fact is, also, that at 13, I not only identified with Bernard in all his geeky, movie/romance nut antics, but I also, like his character, garnered an incredible crush on the vivacious, emotional, strong, intelligent, lovable Diane Lane, who to me, even in her adulthood, embodies everything I want in a woman. This just confirmed that my hero, Daniel, had wisely chosen his/our heroine and was going to stick with her, no matter what she demanded or cried out for, no matter if it was a simple kiss, a meeting at a fountain, an adventure at the tracks, a friendship with an old stranger, a discussion about Heidigger, or an epic adventure that would tranform the lives of all involved. Lane's character was, to me, the first clue that the Goddess existed, and that it was our jobs to make it happen for her, whatever that 'it' may be. Daniel is my hero, and Lauren is my love, and I think, for that reason, "A Little Romance" will always be one of the films that is truly closest to my heart. With its George Roy Hill direction (how amazing that this gentleman not only did live TV, but also BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, THE STING, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, SLAP SHOT, THE WOLRD OF HENRY ORIENT, and SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE---A LITTLE ROMANCE seems like such an anomaly), its splendid, Oscar-winning Georges Delarues score (which borrows heavily from Handel, Bach and French jazz), its soaring ingenues and its seasoned supporting players (hammy-but-fun Lawrence Olivier, taciturn Arthur Hill, and bitchy Sally Kellerman among them, as well as a cameo by burly Broderick Crawford), and its impeccable technical achievements, including its unsentimental photography, its snappy editing (what an ending! Its final 20 minues wil put you through an emotional wringer), and its indelible Oscar-nominated screenplay by Allen Burns, A LITTLE ROMANCE is nothing short of a quiet masterpiece, one that stands in the corner silent, but when noticed, basks in the light of true knowledge, true love, true memory, true ambition, and true romance. No question: the number one, high-almighty, nothing-can-top-it-ever movie about love and romance. If it doesn't have you crying pure tears of joy and sorrow at its culmination, then you are truly made of stone and have no hope of bearing a soul. This is no joke; this is the real deal. The ultimate Valentine's Day movie, for someone you REALLY have a connection with.
All That Jazz (1979)
Brilliant summary of director/Co-writer Fosse's decent into show biz madness and death
Fosse's ALL THAT JAZZ has been mistaken for a rip-off of Fellini's 8 1/2 for some time. But that is giving it short shrift as an illuminating, sobering account of one man's burnout in the face of enormous pressure from the elements of the entertainment industry which he's involved himself in, namely Broadway and the film industry. Based on Fosse's experiences directing CHICAGO on Broadway and LENNY for United Artists, it stars Roy Scheider as Fosse's always black-dressed alter ego Joe Gideon, who's long road to success has been dotted with drug addictions, one-night stands, betrayals, and show biz phoniness.
Particularly of interest in this film is the strong autobiographical quality of it. Fosse did, indeed, suffer his first heart attack during this 1973/74 period of his life. The film-within-the-film, "The Stand Up," is an interesting variation on LENNY (1974, with Dustin Hoffman and Valerie Perrine)---much more irritating than that movie. LENNY ended up getting great reviews, for the most part, but it must have been a tough movie for Fosse to get his hands around, especially while dealing with his failed marriage to Broadway star Gwen Verdon (portrayed here by Leland Palmer). It's certainly portrayed as such in this film. And Chicago seems to have been a challenge for him, too. He obviously thought the original script for that show was lacking (as he actually went on record as saying) and that he had to spice it up for him to become interested in it. (How fascinating would a Fosse film version of CHICAGO have been? As it was, it looks as if eventual CHICAGO director Rob Marshall screened ALL THAT JAZZ many times in order to mine its many storytelling treasures, including the main conceit that most of the film's musical numbers appear in the minds of the main characters.)
Scheider has never been better and deserved real consideration as that year's Best Actor Oscar-winner (he lost, ironically, to Dustin Hoffman who won for KRAMER VS. KRAMER). He is positively channeling his director's personality, down to his constant cigarette smoking and his artsy goatee (not to mention his snaky, rakish attitudes towards personality responsibility). The fine cast also includes: John Lithgow as a rival Broadway director who may or may not take over Joe's show if he dies on the operating table; Max Wright (the dad on ALF) as the producer of Gideon's film; Sandahl Bergman (from CONAN and RED SONJA) as the lead dancer in the "Take Off With Us" musical number that disappoints the stage show's backers; longtime Fosse girlfriend and dancer Ann Reinking as Gideon's other serious bedmate; Cliff Gorman as Davis Newman, the lead actor in "The Stand Up"; the lovely Erezebet Foldi as Gideon's precocious daughter (Fosse's real daughter, Nicole, later appeared in the film version of A CHORUS LINE); Jessica Lange in her first serious role as the Angel of Death; Keith Gordon (an actor in CHRISTINE and BACK TO SCHOOL, who's now an acclaimed director of films like MOTHER NIGHT and the 2003 film adaptation of THE SINGING DETECTIVE) as the young Joe Gideon; Ben Vereen, energetic as a show-biz veteran who "hosts" Gideon's final decent into death. The list goes on and on....
And the tech credits are superb. The film won Oscars for its Tony Walton sets (Tony Walton has been married to Julie Andrews for years, and is an acclaimed stage and film set designer), its Alan Heim editing (Heim worked on NETWORK, among other things), its Ralph Burns scoring (which includes old jazz, classical, pop, and Broadway standards), and its Albert Wolsky costumes. Its photography, by Giuseppe Rotunno, is also great (Rotunno phtographed many Fellini films and probably had much to do with the lumping of Fosse's film in with Fellini's work).
Tying in 1979 with APOCOLYPSE NOW for Cannes Palme D'Or, this is one of the greatest movies ever made, I think, and you'll know that once the first moments--a mass stage audition unbelievably well-edited to the tune of George Benson's version of "On Broadway"--unreel in front of you. It's an unflinching look into the madness of one artist that, eventually, became his undoing (Fosse died in 1986, in his early 60s, of another heart attack, after completing only one more movie, STAR 80, and one more stage show, BIG DEAL). See it and prepare to be moved in strange ways.