Death Wish and Straw Dogs there was Joe (1970). John G. Avildsen's vigilante flick aspires to satirize the Generation Gap, pitting the "Silent Majority" against debauched counterculture. Viewed 43 years later, it's more exploitative than thought-provoking.
Ad executive Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick) finds his daughter Melissa (Susan Sarandon) overdosing on drugs. He tracks down Melissa's dope-dealing boyfriend (Patrick McDermott) and kills him in a fit of rage. Shortly afterwards he encounters Joe (Peter Boyle), a working class bigot who openly fantasizes about murdering hippies. Bill lets slip his secret, and Joe ingratiates himself into Bill's life. When Melissa runs away, Joe leads Bill on a bizarre odyssey to find her, leading to a violent confrontation at a hippie commune.
In one sense, Joe perfectly embodies its time period. Joe's introduced ranting in a bar, citing George Wallace in proclaiming that "42 percent of liberals are faggots." He's the American Everyman, frustrated by the Great Society and civil upheavals, dismayed by youth, falling back on self-pity and prejudice. He finds a kindred spirit in the more "respectable" Bill, well-heeled, educated and rich, yet possessing similar prejudices. Just the idea of Melissa consorting with pushers drives him to homicidal rage; what's he done to deserve this? When he and Joe descend into the hippie underworld, their prejudices seem vindicated; two girls seduce them while their boyfriends steal their wallets. Why reason with kids when you can just blow them away?
What's problematic about Joe isn't the message but its presentation. Joe's meant to be a monstrous embodiment of
Middle American prejudices rather than a reactionary hero. Yet reports claim that contemporary viewers cheered his actions at film's end. Intentionally or not, it served as a release for '70s Orthogonians, disgusted with the long-haired creeps dragging society into the gutter. Any irony's lost in the final reels; the climactic killing spree is as ill-judged as The Trial of Billy Jack's National Guard massacre, playing less as horrific set piece than cathartic climax.
Joe's certainly provocative but lacks any dramatic credibility. Wexford's story provides little motivation for its characters. That Bill could murder Melissa's creep boyfriend is one thing; that he'd blather about it to a stranger in a bar is merest contrivance. Long scenes of Joe ingratiating himself with Bill and his wife (K Callan) provide some low comedy but really deaden the narrative. Joe and Bill's quest into hippie-dom mainly results in a predictable juxtaposition of sex and violence; the ending's too obviously telegraphed to shock.
Peter Boyle dominates the show. Blunt, violent and vulgar, he embodies the working class stiff disgusted by Boomer excesses and eager to put his bigotry into action. It's quite from his comic turns in Young Frankenstein and TV's Everybody Loves Raymond. Dennis Patrick can't help seeming colorless in comparison. Doe-eyed Susan Sarandon makes her film debut, but it's not much of a part - Melissa's always frazzled, naked or both.
Joe has its moments, but is mainly a confused mess. A big hit in its day, it's now a curious time capsule, celebrating attitudes purports to deconstruct.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Monday, December 2, 2013
Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a hard-living electrician and rodeo cowboy in 1980s Dallas. After an accident, he's diagnosed with AIDS and given just 30 days to live. Woodroof undergoes a regimen of experimental AZT drug which only makes him sicker. He travels to Mexico, discovering that disgraced Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne) a combination of drugs that works better than AZT. Woodroof teams with another AIDS patient, transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto), to distribute these drugs through a buyers' club. His activities catch the eye of FDA Agent (Michael O'Neill), who acts to shut down Woodruff's operation.
Dallas Buyers Club makes for a perfect libertarian fable. The FDA and pharmaceutical companies fast track AZT in dangerous doses - either addressing a desperate need over-eagerly or a callow conspiracy to make a buck. Of course it's Dr. Vass, disgraced, de-licensed and living in Mexican exile, who harnesses the miracle cures! Vallee and writers Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack try to soft pedal this, for instance by showing Ron overdose on one of his medications. But Dallas sees no problem with Ron running drugs from Japan or shipping black market meds to his policeman friend (Steve Zahn).
The criticism, that government regulations slow or curtail availability of medications, is fair enough. Especially in the context of the AIDS epidemic, where public panic and need for a useful cure outpacing the speed of bureaucracy. But this reviewer finds it dangerous to generalize with such matters. Enough cases of doctor shopping and drug abuse, let alone quack pills and tainted drugs, show that FDA regulations make sense. Dallasreally only needs a push towards destructive nonsense like anti-vaccine paranoia, which does more than theoretical damage.
Even those who don't buy Dallas's conceit should appreciate its human element. Woodroof's transformation to hotshot black marketer seems improbable, but becomes an extension of his wild lifestyle. If he develops a friendship for Rayon he never fully sheds his prejudices: his first instinct when meeting a straight woman patient is to take her to bed. Even his pseudo-romance with Dr. Saks has its poignant moments. Rayon is sensitively rendered, avoiding the pitfalls of the "gay best friend" stereotype: he gets nice moments away from Woodroof, like meeting his disapproving father.
Matthew McConaughey's impressive performance helps too. Continuing his recent transition from pretty boy to serious actor, McConaughey sheds weight and otherwise commits. Ron softens without losing his essential character, the hardest kind of character arcs. His natural brashness re-channels boozing and whoring into criminal enterprise, thumbing his nose at arrogant doctors and pesky G-Men. It's a nice turn, sparkling with a nuance I'd never have expected from the star of U-571 and Failure to Launch.
Jared Leto avoids playing up stereotype, giving Rayon humor and warmth, making him suitably tragic when necessary. The other cast members aren't so impressive. Jennifer Garner is fairly colorless, while Denis O'Hare and Michael O'Neill play as too obvious of villains.
Dallas Buyers Club is good despite being rough around its thematic edges. Perhaps Groggy's being a statist scrooge, but the movie's message is too case-dependent for me to jump on board. That said, it's still an enjoyable show, with a message that engages you even if you're in disagreement.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Based on Markus Zusak's popular novel, The Book Thief (2013) is a major disappointment. Handsomely produced, Brian Percival's adaptation nonetheless feels naggingly superficial.
Germany 1938. Young Liesl (Sophie Nelisse) gets separated from her mother, a political refugee, who leaves Liesel with sweet Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and sour Rosa Huberman (Emily Watson). Liesel warms to her adoptive parents, but has trouble fitting in at school, picked on for her illiteracy and uncomprehending the surfeit of National Socialist propaganda. She befriends precocious Rudy (Nico Liersch) and learns to read, becoming obsessed with books. Trouble beckons when Max (Ben Schnetzer), a young Jew, seeks sanctuary at the Hubermans. World War II breaks out, the government grows more repressive, and the town comes under Allied bombardment.
The Book Thief tries to operate on two levels. Percival and writer Michael Petroni suggest a fantasia, from its child focus to fairytale plotting and silly humor. Portions of Thief are snidely narrated by Death (Roger Allam), a conceit which might work in the book but proves insufferable on film. While explicit violence remains off screen, Percival does depict wartime deprivations: townspeople conscripted into military service, food and supplies running out, air raids devastating the town. The film vacillates between wispy fantasy and weighty drama, never finding the right balance.
Contrasting childhood innocence with crushing totalitarianism is a well-worn conceit, even if children rarely provide the most useful perspective. World War II and the Holocaust provides plenty of examples, from The Diary of Anne Frank to Number the Stars, so this territory's already well-mined. Percival dutifully checks off the Third Reich's greatest hits: stormtroopers burning books, brief glimpses of Kristallnacht and Jews being rounded up. For all the rich period detail, Thief offers little perspective on Nazism.
Liesl and her adoptive parents earn our sympathy, with their warm scenes of family bonding and perseverance in the face of oppression. Everything else feels under-sketched. Liesel and Rudy's friendship never develops beyond stage one, and other child characters are ciphers. Liesl's fascination with reading amounts to a trivial tic. Is she a rebel for saving H.G. Wells from the Nazi bonfire? Thief wants to stress the ability of ideas, the power of words to overcome tyranny (or at least preserve individuality). Outside of the cloying epilogue, Percival treats this idea as superficially as anything else.
Sophie Nelisse gives a warm, endearing performance deserving a much weightier character. Geoffrey Rush is utterly charming, while Emily Watson (War Horse) excels in a more difficult role. None of the other actors, child or adult, makes much impression: Nico Lierisch, as Rudy, is too much a typical movie kid, while Ben Schnetzer's Max is a vaguely likeable cipher. Hildegard Schroedter plays a disappointing character, a book loving noblewoman who grows less interesting the more time we spend with her.
I really wanted to enjoy The Book Thief more. For all its handsome surface, it never achieves the depth or poignancy the subject matter deserves.
Friday, November 29, 2013
Far from Heaven (2002) is an amiable stab at old-fashioned filmmaking. Todd Haynes crafts a handsome time capsule of the '50s, paying homage to Douglas Sirk's famous melodramas while exploring the unspoken tensions underneath. Essentially an experiment in nostalgia, it's beautifully crafted and well-acted.
Cathy Whittaker (Julianne Moore) is a model '50s housewife, living in idyllic Connecticut and married to ad executive Frank (Dennis Quaid). But Cathy gradually discovers Frank's secret life; he's a closeted homosexual. Reeling from this revelation, Cathy confides her Raymond (Dennis Haysbert), a kindly black gardener. Cathy and Raymond grow closer, inspiring local gossips to "improper" relationship. As Frank struggles to control his sexuality more and more, Cathy's life threatens to unspool completely.
Far from Heaven evokes a bygone era of movie-making. Haynes borrows Sirk's gorgeous Technicolor and emotive lighting, with Elmer Bernstein providing a lush old-fashioned score. Haynes mixes deliberately arch, anachronistic dialogue with lightly affected acting. Thanks to photographer Edward Lachman, Heaven never lacks for gorgeous visuals: the period detail and beautiful autumn settings, Cathy and friends' seasonal outfits to Raymond's flannel jackets emulating Rock Hudson in All That Heaven Allows. There's even a rear projected driving scene!
Far from Heaven addresses material that Sirk's films only hinted at. Cathy and friend Eleanor (Patrica Clarkson) discuss sex as an unpleasant chore, subverting the wink-and-nod approach to marital relations. Cathy hints early on at an edge beneath her image; she was nicknamed "Red" in college for supporting progressive causes, making her susceptible to gossip.The townspeople express vague support for Civil Rights, but confronted with real Negros act as bigoted as Orval Faubus. In a society stressing conformity, any deviation from accept norms brings harsh consequences.
All this would be routine enough, on the surface. Deconstructions of '50s white bread conformity are fairly common in our politically correct society. But Haynes reflects not only the look but the attitudes of a '50s film, if the Hayes Office allowed more honesty. In this regard, Heaven puts similar nostalgic efforts like Steven Soderbergh's The Good German to shame.
Julianne Moore gives a remarkable performance. Early on she gives a delightfully affected turn, cheerily playing up Cathy's image as "Mrs. Magnitech." Cathy's largely passive, confused by and reacting to currents around her, a character less worthy actresses would squander. But Moore finds the human core beneath the caricature, trapped by her role as wife and homemaker, yet unable to maintain the facade.
Dennis Quaid plays wonderfully against type, all confusion, anguish and self-loathing. Quaid walks a careful tightrope; we're sympathetic to Frank's inner turmoil, even though (or because?) he embraces the prejudices of his peers. Dennis Haysbert is quietly likeable, in a role allowing for little else. Patricia Clarkson (The Untouchables) does excellent work, turning on Cathy once she finds the rumors are true. Viola Davis (Doubt) appears as the Whittaker's maid.
As a cinematic exercise Far from Heaven is highly enjoyable. Whether its appeal stretches beyond cineastes is questionable, though there's certainly enough substance to engage a wide audience.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
|"It is not every man who's offered a country of his very own!"|
In the 1850s, American adventurer William Walker (Ed Harris) leads an unsuccessful invasion of Sonora, Mexico. Walker considers retiring, but his fiancee's (Marlee Matlin) death prompts him to conquer Nicaragua for Cornelius Vanderbilt's (Peter Boyle) railroad company. Leading a polyglot band of freebooters, known as the "Immortals," Walker liberates Nicaragua, appointing himself military commander while placing a pliant puppet in the Presidency. But Walker's regime grows more repressive, turning the Nicaraguans, Vanderbilt and his own men against him. Walker still considers himself a "man of destiny," confident that faith will see him through.
Politically and artistically, Walker is remarkably subversive. Besides shooting in Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua, Cox employs a rococo aesthetic, mixing period detail with riotous anachronisms. Characters drink Coca-Cola, read Newsweek and use IBM computers in 1850s Nicaragua. The incongruities extend further: Cox scores battle scenes to lively salsa music, employing slow motion and grisly blood squibs to make Sam Peckinpah blanch. Actors perform Julius Caesar in a riot-torn city. Vanderbilt appears in extreme close-up like an Eisenstein villain, an effect undercut by flatulence.
Filibustering was a long-standing tradition until the Civil War. Possibly the most famous is Aaron Burr, who left the Vice Presidency to claim the Louisiana Purchase as a private fiefdom. Contemporary with Walker, John Fremont established California's Bear Flag Republic, Narciso Lopez invaded Cuba and Irish-American Fenians constantly raided into Canada. Aside from Fremont these men failed, but sewed chaos abroad while commanding much admiration at home.
Historian Robert E. May frames filibustering as the logical extension of "Manifest Destiny." After all, 19th Century America expelled Native Americans and conquered half of Mexico, spreading destruction and slavery alongside democracy. Walker and Co. were merely small-time players in the same market. Likewise, Cox and writer Rudy Wurlitzer depict Walker as the Id of American adventurism, much as Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo equated the Mafia with Big Business.
Similarly, Cox and Wurlitzer use Walker to deconstruct the "Great Man" view of history. Justifying his actions with abstractions about God and Democracy, yet admits he doesn't understand his own principles. He sees no incongruity between introducing slavery to Nicaragua and upholding "freedom." His grasp of military tactics consists of walking unarmed towards dumbfounded Nicaraguan troops. Ultimately Walker's campaign becomes not a political or moral crusade, but megalomania writ large.
Ed Harris gives arguably his best performance. Constantly reserved and intense, completely unironic, Harris mixes flinty determination, unlikely naivety and disturbing singlemindedness. Walker isn't so much power mad as blind to reality: he's determined to make an impact, regardless of (and oblivious to) the actual results. It's a masterful turn, humorous yet unsettling, that Harris sells beautifully.
It's Harris's show all the way, but Cox throws the supporting cast a few bones. Rene Auberjounois gets the best secondary role, as a German mercenary who holds Walker to ridicule. Bianca Guerra proves quite memorable as a Nicaraguan matron who seduces and tries to manipulate Walker. Peter Boyle sweats and farts through his scenes, a broad caricature of capitalist avarice. Marlee Maitlin gets some funny bits before bowing out early. Joe Strummer of The Clash, who also produced the soundtrack, cameos as one of Walker's men.
Walker was a colossal flop, damaging Cox's budding career. No doubt Cox's radical politics played a part in its failure, though his artistic excesses undoubtedly turned off mainstream audiences. Definitely not for all tastes, it's nonetheless a remarkable experiment.