Archive for February 2004

The Passion of the Christ

February 25, 2004

Great sincerity often blinds one to one’s own follies, and The Passion of the Christ, like most films dealing with the Jesus story, has its powerful moments and its goofy moments. Director Mel Gibson, as we’ve all heard ad infinitum by now, is a devout Catholic, and he approaches the material with a kind of robust reverence. Much of the filmmaking is accomplished and sure-footed; monotonous as the last hour is, it’s paced like a shot. And Gibson does give the grateful audience one mild laugh, when Jesus (James Caviezel), in a flashback, is kidding around with his mother Mary (Maia Morgenstern, in probably the best performance). Still, the whole affair left me feeling rather remote and unmoved. By emphasizing the agony of Christ’s last day to the near-exclusion of all else, Gibson has made a strange experimental film that he offers as an act of faith, but which seems more like an act of directorial hubris.

Much has been made of the film’s brutality, and I suppose it’s helpful to warn people who haven’t been to the movies much in the last thirty years that this isn’t the sanitized crucifixion of, say, King of Kings. After all the talk about it, I had steeled myself for something that would turn my stomach and rock my foundations, but, image for image, there’s not a lot here you haven’t seen if, like me, you grew up on a steady diet of violent horror movies. The difference here, as in Saving Private Ryan (which also came with media warnings for the elderly), is the sheer repetition and relentlessness of the bloodletting. When Jesus’ back is scourged, first with routine whips and then with sharp metal-tipped flails, and then the Romans turn him over so they can whip the front of him too, Gibson is giving us far more than we need to get the point. The violence becomes numbing, meaningless.

At certain points, Gibson seems ready to go all the way into the horror genre. A bald, androgynous Satan (Rosalinda Celentano) makes an early appearance to tempt Jesus, then haunts the betraying Judas (Luca Lionello) to suicide. Phantasms and grotesquely deformed children appear to Judas, and he hangs himself near a horse’s maggot-infested corpse. The episode has the ooh-spooky tone of one of the Omen flicks (so does a moment when a disbeliever on the cross next to Jesus is visited by a hungry crow), and Gibson isn’t a subtle enough director to pull off these moments of spiritual dread — they just come off cheesy. Sadly, Gibson is still indulging his homophobia, too, even here, in the episode wherein the decadent, fey King Herod taunts Jesus.

Cinematically, Gibson gets some things right. The use of subtitled ancient languages (Latin, Aramaic) lends the movie a rhetorical gravitas that Martin Scorsese’s rather more colloquial The Last Temptation of Christ sorely lacked. Director of photography Caleb Deschanel lights with an eye for mood, as if this were bible noir. Gibson consciously moves away from an epic flavor, shooting almost the entire movie very close in — there can’t be more than a handful of medium or long shots. Some of the practical details of the crucifixion, such as turning the cross over to hammer the nail points flush against the back of the cross planks, certainly show that Gibson has done his homework.

It’s all more or less skillfully done, but at the center of The Passion of the Christ is anguish without context; of course, you’re supposed to bring the context with you — most of us know the story leading up to Jesus’ death. But narratively, it makes for an awfully lopsided experience. Why fixate so much on the physical horrors of the story? The catalog of torture becomes squalid and borderline sadistic, and sadism at tedious length is no more interesting or illuminating than anything else at tedious length. (And poor James Caviezel is given very little to do besides suffer; he comes off as the most blank movie Jesus in many years.) If you went into the film with no knowledge of Christianity, you might come out wondering why a religion could be so obsessed with torture and agony as the central image of its faith. That’s because the movie equates redemption with physical ordeals — it’s a macho-man interpretation. How much can Jesus take? He took a lot, man — just look at all that punishment he’s taking. That was one tough motherfucker. Powerful for a while, until its power begins to seep out somewhere in the second hour, this fraction of a story reduces one of history’s most galvanizing legends to an endurance test — a sort of Xtreme Sport for martyrs.

Welcome to Mooseport

February 20, 2004

I have no idea if the portrait of post-presidential life in Welcome to Mooseport is an accurate one, but it looks like an ongoing, hectic effort to reassure a former president that he’s still top dog. Apparently, he who once sat in the Oval Office can still count on flocks of obsequious aides, eager reporters wherever he goes (I beg to differ — do you know what Bill Clinton was doing last week?), and hulking Secret Service agents shadowing his steps. Imagine how divorced from reality a sitting president must be. (Many of us don’t have to imagine.)

Welcome to Mooseport got my ticket vote based on a new rule I made up: If there’s a choice between four uninspiring new movies, and one of them stars Gene Hackman, go with Gene Hackman. The movie isn’t exactly a jewel in his crown, but it doesn’t disgrace him — Hackman is too suavely comfortable with comedy to let even a coarsely written sitcom of a movie drag him down. Hackman is Monroe “Eagle” Cole, an ex-president coming off of two wildly successful terms in office (he enjoyed an “85% approval rating,” we’re told, neatly sidestepping the issue of what party he belongs to; he’s seen reading something with a Democratic letterhead near the beginning, but that doesn’t prove much). He’s also coming off of a nasty divorce; he flees to his vacation home of Mooseport, Maine (Canada mostly body-doubles for the Pine Tree State), where he’s received as if he were a returning king instead of a vacationer.

Mooseport’s mayor has just died, and the townspeople immediately beg Monroe to step into the job. After some thought, Monroe accepts, mostly as a public-relations move (he’s concerned about getting his presidential library built — it has to be twice as big as Clinton’s). An interesting comedy might’ve followed Monroe and his staff (including efficient assistant Marcia Gay Harden and cringing PR lackey Fred Savage) through the oddities of rural politics, perhaps turning the nation’s most popular president into Maine’s most unpopular mayor.

Instead, we get a second story, that of humble plumber and Mooseport native Handy Harrison (Ray Romano), whose commitmentphobia endangers his six-year relationship with his veterinarian girlfriend Sally (Maura Tierney). He decides to run for mayor, too, putting himself in Monroe’s politically savvy crosshairs. If the movie had been about Handy, a decent, honest fellow undone by the unethical demands of seeking public office, we might’ve had a zesty little satire.

So whose story is this? Nobody’s. We don’t know whom we’re meant to root for, and the movie tips its rather desperate hand when both candidates fall into an Alphonse-and-Gaston act of endorsing each other for mayor. Do they really care who wins? Does the movie care? Should we? Welcome to Mooseport is also the most shabbily edited movie released by a major studio in some time. When Monroe discovers that Handy has put his name in for mayor, it’s as much a surprise to us as it is to Monroe; we seem to be missing the scene wherein Handy actually decides to undertake this life-changing effort — it’s as if the projectionist skipped a reel. Similarly, when Monroe’s shrewish ex-wife (Christine Baranski, in fine, scary voice) storms into town to support Handy, Monroe accuses Handy of plotting to bring her into the race; Handy denies it, and we believe him, but we never do find out who did bring her in.

For all that, the movie is amiable nonsense, painless enough to sit through (provided you do so on your couch when there’s nothing else good on TV). Ray Romano may be looking to upgrade to movies, but I’m not sure that what amounts to a supporting role opposite Gene Hackman is going to do it for him. Romano is his usual modest, regular-guy self, which works just fine on prime time, and is the exact opposite of what’s required of a movie star. He seems in awe of Hackman, and not just in character as Handy. Welcome to Mooseport somehow becomes a behind-the-scenes essay on why Gene Hackman — as unlikely a movie star as there’s ever been, on the surface — has endured for four decades, while the presentable, inoffensive Romano should probably go back to stand-up after his show is over, or do woolly-mammoth voices in kid’s cartoons.

50 First Dates

February 13, 2004

A future as a romantic-comedy lead is Adam Sandler’s for the asking, if he asks for it. Thirty-eight this year, Sandler must know he’s getting a bit old for slob humor (even if his frequent confederate Rob Schneider, who turned 40 last year, doesn’t). His most appealing role in recent memory remains his good-hearted, gel-headed Robbie Hart in 1998’s The Wedding Singer, in which Sandler struck offbeat sparks with Drew Barrymore. Well, no one could accuse Sandler of not doing what worked before; his new 50 First Dates both reteams him with Barrymore and opens, like The Wedding Singer, the day before Valentine’s Day.

50 First Dates has a near-fatal flaw, but most of it moves with a genial, lulling rhythm, taking its cue from its setting (Hawaii) and its soundtrack full of ’80s hits recast as island melodies. Sandler is Henry Roth, a veterinarian at a Sea World-like park, administering remedies to penguins and dolphins and a dyspeptic walrus (the walrus is terrific, by the way). Awaiting breakfast in a diner new to him, he notices a radiant blonde — Lucy Whitmore (Barrymore) — building little houses out of her waffles. Henry has enough sense to be smitten by this detail, and the pair hit it off nicely. The next day, he sits across from her at the same diner and gets a cold brush-off.

Lucy has the movie version of short-term memory loss — like Guy Pearce in Memento, she can’t retain new memories. Every day is the same day for her, and she forgets it all the next morning, so Henry has to work that much harder for her love. He works in collaboration with Lucy’s dad (Blake Clark) and doofus brother (Sean Astin, bulked up and lisping insecurely) to break Lucy’s situation gently to her each morning; her dad and brother have been spending the past year making her believe that nothing has changed and that every day is the same day (which strikes me as a little creepy, but never mind — in any event, even if they were honest with her, she’d forget it the next morning).

It’s a neat premise, but maybe it would’ve worked better with a couple with a weaker rapport than Sandler and Barrymore. When they walk together mid-day, having built up enough familiarity to joke and mock-insult each other, they move and speak in tandem. This could be a magical screwball couple to brighten many other romantic comedies, but in 50 First Dates we keep getting pushed back to square one. It feels unnatural that their connection isn’t allowed to build, and though it allows Sandler some moments of pathos, we really don’t want to accept that Lucy doesn’t remember Henry from day to day. The comedy has a built-in depressing subtext, and not everyone finds the idea of catastrophic memory loss all that funny.

Still, the moments that Sandler and Barrymore can steal together are golden, and this might be the comic role Barrymore was born to play — her persona has always been built on flitting from one thing to the next while enjoying the ritual of her life. I won’t mind a bit if these two reconvene every few years; as Sandler approaches forty and Barrymore closes in on thirty, they might turn into the millennial version of Astaire and Rogers — she gives him sex appeal, and he gives her a liberating lack of class. 50 First Dates isn’t quite up to The Wedding Singer, with its lovelorn hopes spinning ’round like a record, but it makes Sandler into a hero of romantic perseverance and Barrymore into a glowing candle worth the chase.

Miracle

February 6, 2004

Here’s a happy surprise. Miracle, which looks like a flag-waving Disney sports movie, gives us instead a complex portrait of a man, and Kurt Russell delivers a major performance as that man while barely varying his facial expressions or the rhythm of his gum-chewing (all coaches, it seems, must chew gum). As Herb Brooks, who coached the United States amateur hockey team to Olympic victory in 1980, Russell adopts the rounded vowels of Minnesota, giving his usually knife-edged speech patterns a loose poetry they’ve never had before. Nothing else about Herb is loose, though. Hair parted to the side in a helmet-head cut without a strand out of place, Herb yells without seeming aggressive and argues without seeming argumentative. Rigid to the core, he’s always right, and knows it.

Herb is positioned as the kind of simple optimist — if you work and bleed hard enough for it, you can have it — that America needs in its time of “malaise,” as Jimmy Carter famously put it. Uncertain about its position in the world, frazzled by a decade of turmoil and excess, America at the end of the ’70s is an underdog. Herb hasn’t gotten the memo on that, or on anything else except hockey. (His wife at one point has to wrest his attention away from his roster list so that he can catch a TV report about the hostages in Iran.) Herb doesn’t see any reason why a sufficiently scrappy, passionate, and hungry team can’t stand skate to skate with the feared Soviet team, which has won every gold medal for over a decade.

This isn’t Rocky IV all over again: None of the Soviet players scowls at an American player and sneers “Ve vill break you.” In fact, for much of the movie, Herb pays more respect to the Soviet team than he does to the team he’s driving so hard. Obsessively watching films of the Soviets on the ice, he knows why they’ve been champions, and he knows that the only way to beat them is to play like them. The triumphalism at the climax is not jingoistic but a sort of relief that an underdog team from an underdog country held off a great team against the odds.

Herb’s training, which borders on sadistic at times, takes up about two-thirds of the movie. He hammers the players like a Zen master, pushing them to their physical limits and beyond. Once they learn precision, they must learn passion. Herb understands that shared anguish can result in a foxhole rapport, the cement of a winning team. Soon enough, players aren’t just asking to play hurt; they’re demanding it. The players jokingly give Herb a whip for Christmas, in both a tweak at their relentless taskmaster and a tribute. Herb’s assistant coach (a solid job by Noah Emmerich, serving as the good cop to Russell’s bad cop) sometimes shakes his head at the boss’s excesses but never questions them.

“You were born to be hockey players,” Herb shouts at his boys at a crucial moment, and he, too, was chosen by the gods of the ice; he’d been a player on the 1960 Olympic team (the last American team to win), but got cut at the last minute. This is Herb’s chance to take the gold, and fortunately he has a patient wife (Patricia Clarkson, who does what she can in the Wife role) who won’t get after him too much about picking the kids up from ballet or hockey practice when he’s got a 4:00 meeting. Herb takes the team right up to the top and right down to the wire, and Kurt Russell maintains a quiet, unshowy intensity. His big moment is played in shadow, at a respectful distance, when emotion finally overwhelms Herb to the point where he can’t chew it along with his gum, and he goes off to be alone while the crowd goes crazy. See Miracle even if you don’t give a damn about hockey (I don’t): Kurt Russell as this tight, held-in man is the purest, most expressive thing you’re going to see at the movies this season.


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