Archive for December 2003


December 24, 2003

Monster is a real-life horror movie — of the small but prestigious serious-true-crime-film genre — that deserves to stand alongside Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and In Cold Blood. This particular story has inspired books, a TV movie (Overkill, starring Jean Smart), two documentaries by Nick Broomfield, and even an opera. What is there left to say about Aileen Wuornos, who confessed in 1991 to the highway murders of seven men? A prostitute with a terribly harsh backstory, Wuornos lashed out at the world, at anything that threatened her one chance at love — her relationship with lover Tyria Moore, who ended up betraying her to the police by taping a phone call in which Wuornos talked about her crimes.

Writer/director Patty Jenkins focuses on this doomed love in a loveless life. Aileen (Charlize Theron), when we meet her as an adult, has been hooking since she was thirteen. Men disgust her, because she sees the worst of them at their worst. She denies she’s a lesbian, but when she meets the tiny, girlish Selby (a fictionalized Tyria, well-played by Christina Ricci in a change-of-pace optimistic role), something in her is moved. Selby, a baby dyke just tiptoeing out of the closet, has a cast on her arm — she’s like a little bird with a broken wing, and Aileen takes her in. She wants to take care of Selby, enacting a husband role — Selby will stay home (she can’t work with her arm in a cast) while Aileen goes out and makes money by turning tricks. When one of her johns (Lee Tergesen of Oz, letting his freak flag fly) goes psycho on her, she kills him in self-defense. The other six men she kills do little to earn it except picking her up and having money — and she needs money to keep Selby fed.

The real triumph of Charlize Theron’s performance, aside from the cosmetic transformation you’ve heard too much about, is that she lets us understand Aileen’s murderous determination while never romanticizing it or excusing it. This is, undoubtedly, a severely damaged personality at the end of her rope, and Theron makes Aileen realistically frightening and unreachable at times. Murder in her hands is certainly not cool. Two of her encounters with men — Pruitt Taylor Vince as a hapless, stammering trucker and Scott Wilson as a good samaritan — come to surprising and resonant ends, and Theron’s face registers Aileen’s disgust with her company, her world, herself.

This could be the simple story of an abused woman who finally snapped; her beating and torture at the hands of her first victim may shock the unshockable, particularly the sadistic use of rubbing alcohol after Aileen has been violated with a stick. Yet Jenkins’ handling of the murder that follows doesn’t have a remotely victorious tone. Aileen is one of the lost, one of the people for whom nothing will ever go right (there’s a mid-film montage of Aileen pathetically applying for various jobs), and her killings don’t have the ring of empowerment but the predetermined knell of a descent further into hell. She goes home to her lover after one murder, pausing to wash off the blood in the hotel shower. Past a certain point, if Selby doesn’t know where all of Aileen’s money is coming from, it’s probably because she doesn’t want to know.

Theron also catches the nervous, creepy aliveness of Aileen, something I noticed while watching the actual person in Broomfield’s 1992 documentary Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer. Aileen, who was executed in October 2002, was no dimwit; she was terribly emotionally stunted, as Monster acknowledges on several occasions, including Aileen’s infamous courtroom tirade (having seen the real Aileen delivering the obscenities in Broomfield’s film, I can attest that Theron duplicates the moment precisely). Aileen’s answer to just about everything was a closed fist. Though Aileen later repudiated her own earlier claims that all of her murders had been in self-defense, Monster looks deeper and sees a life lived in self-defense.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

December 17, 2003

Last December, summing up my experiences to date in Middle-earth, I wrote that the first Lord of the Rings installment (The Fellowship of the Ring) had interested and entertained me, and The Two Towers had hooked me. The final chapter, I’m afraid, has lost me. The Return of the King is far from a turkey — for what it is, it’s as exquisitely crafted as its predecessors. Peter Jackson deserves respect and recognition (from the Academy or otherwise) just for having mounted this formidable project. But I suppose the problem, for me, in this finale must go back to the old wizard himself, J.R.R. Tolkien. This road goes ever on and on, and Tolkien liked it that way. Jackson, straining for fidelity, dramatizes a lot of stuff that feels like padding.

What can you say about an epic in which the biggest conflagrations, we’re repeatedly told, are just distractions to keep the eye of Sauron off of a hobbit? You may say, Wow, some distractions — Jackson rounds up what look like millions of combatants, on foot or astride horses or elephant-like beasts or winged nasties (sorry, I don’t care enough to look up the critters’ actual names), bashing each other for the better part of 90 minutes (with a good amount of cross-cutting to less testosteronal happenings). It’s safe to say the big screen hasn’t seen gigantism on this level since the glory days of Fritz Lang (who had to gather his masses without the aid of computers). But there’s just too damn much of it, as there’s too much of most everything else here. A lot of it is just hacking and slashing on a mammoth scale, which is still just hacking and slashing. If you’re happy with that sort of thing, ROTK has a ton of that sort of thing.

While all that’s going on, the weary hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Samwise (Sean Astin), accompanied by the duplicitous and conflicted Gollum (voice and modeling by Andy Serkis, who also plays the pre-Gollumized hobbit Smeagol in a prologue), trek up the hazardous face of Mount Doom, where they must dispose of the One Ring. Poor Samwise must fend off the ring-greedy Gollum while looking after Master Frodo; very little doubt is allowed to cloud his pure, stainless love for the frail ringbearer. Do we ever feel they’ll give up or be defeated? Is this the final three hours of a nine-hour cycle? Quest narratives like this are too predetermined to fool you for even a moment. The whole gargantuan thing is meant to test the fortitude of the heroes, the weakness of the villains, and the bladders of the audience.

Back in the fray, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) gets some supernatural warriors on his side with some fancy rhetoric and, mostly, his comically long (Jackson pans up the blade in priapic awe), newly reforged sword that proves he’s the top dog. Merry (Dominic Monaghan) sneaks into battle with Eowyn (Miranda Otto), while his buddy Pippin (Billy Boyd) hangs out with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and discusses the meaning of death. Legolas (Orlando Bloom) has exactly one crowd-pleasing moment, when he takes down one of those elephant things, but otherwise recedes into the background, a cipher firing arrows. The only actor who moved me was John Noble (who looks like a dissipated Terry Gilliam) as the mad Denethor, who has already lost one son (Boromir, in the first film) in battle and now thinks he has lost the other. Noble’s performance pushes against the heroic constraints of the epic; he’s allowed to be flawed, mad, human.

After much warfare (during which even the thrill of seeing men plucked up or batted aside, complete with their horses, by giant adversaries loses its novelty) and much pain and anguish on the path up Mount Doom, the journey reaches its end. The movie, however, continues forward for another twenty minutes or so, with reunions and marriage and tearful farewells and, for all we know, in the eventual extended edition on DVD, a dance number or two. The Return of the King reminded me why I got bored with Dungeons & Dragons after about age fourteen. When all was said and done, I was ready to re-enter the real world, go home to my DVD player, and pop in something raw, gritty, and short.

Big Fish

December 10, 2003

Big-FishBig Fish is the sort of autumnal, elegiac tearjerker you expect from a director in his sixties, not from Tim Burton, who’s forty-five. It may be a little too early in his career for glowing odes to the power of storytelling — its transportive magic, its warming and benign delusions. That said, I enjoyed Big Fish more than any film Burton has been involved with since maybe Nightmare Before Christmas. Working from Daniel Wallace’s slim, anecdotal novel (adapted by John August), Burton allows himself clearer, purer access to emotion than ever before. He actually pays attention to “normal” characters this time, integrating them seamlessly with the misfits that have always been his stock in trade.

This is also the rare tearjerker that may inspire debate afterward. The main character, Edward Bloom, played in old age by Albert Finney and by Ewan McGregor as a young man, regales anyone who’ll listen with outlandish tales of his life. There are skeptics in the film, including Edward’s grown son Will (Billy Crudup), who wishes his father had told him something real about himself just once. What we see in flashbacks, as Burton faithfully dramatizes Edward’s stories, is most likely at odds with what actually happened — or is it? Is this the story of a sad, self-deluded man who told whoppers to make his life more interesting, or the story of a man with a wild imagination who simply created a world he wanted to live in? Burton obviously leans towards the latter.

We follow young Edward in his travels — to a carnival, accompanied by a giant (Matthew McGrory); to a suspiciously idyllic town called Spectre, which may or may not be Heaven itself; to the Korean War, where he meets a Siamese-twin singing act. These colorful yarns — acted by McGregor with his trademark shining grin and disregard of irony — are contrasted with latter-day scenes of the dying Edward in his sickbed, attended by his adoring wife Sandra (Jessica Lange in a somewhat thankless role — Burton seldom pays much attention to women in his work) and badgered by Will into telling the truth. But it becomes apparent that Edward’s stories are his truth.

A plotless compendium of tall tales, with many differently-bodied people to detain the camera eye, Big Fish comes close to being Tim Burton In A Nutshell. Whatever manic gothic energy distinguished his early films (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, parts of Batman) is gone, replaced by smooth, unobtrusive filmmaking, as if Burton had finally developed the patience to let a movie unfold (to be fair, 1994’s Ed Wood pointed towards a new, mature style for him). Edward’s stories ramble, and so the movie does, too. Helena Bonham Carter, who I’m beginning to think does her warmest work for Burton (she was the humanistic heart of his Planet of the Apes remix), turns up in two roles, as a one-eyed witch (whose glass eye tells you how you’re going to die) and as a native of Spectre who benefits from Edward’s generosity. It’s typical of the movie that it never quite tells us whether the two characters are really the same person.

In his travels, Edward bumps into the likes of Danny DeVito (as a carny barker) and Steve Buscemi (as a poet whose work is eternally “in progress”). Really, pretty much everyone Edward meets is a kind of storyteller, or a character out of a fairytale. Are they real? The final scene tells us but doesn’t tell us. After a career of literal-minded ghoulies and phantasms, Tim Burton has discovered ambiguity. The filmmaking shows the assured control of a master summing up his filmography at the twilight of his career, which may be why I balk at Burton doing something like this at age forty-five. I’d hate to think there isn’t more where this comes from.

Calendar Girls

December 9, 2003

calendar-girls-2003-01Calendar Girls is a rather conventional comedy, but it works with honor and spirit, and it’s another movie — like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood — at which the rare sound of middle-aged female laughter can be heard in the theater. The movie is about English women in their fifties or beyond, contemplating the heretofore-absurd notion of displaying their flesh for money. It’s for a good cause: raising funds to buy a new couch for the relatives’ room at a local hospital. The cause is close to home for Annie (Julie Walters), whose amiable, loving husband John (John Alderton) has recently died of leukemia. Annie’s best friend Chris (Helen Mirren) hits upon the idea of doing a nudie calendar, “for John,” sponsored by their local Women’s Institute chapter.

This is all based in fact: Tricia Stewart did devise the idea, inspired by her friend Angela Baker’s bereavement. The actual calendar, which features Tricia, Angela, and several other members of the Women’s Institute, can be viewed in part at the movie’s official website. Director Nigel Cole seems to be drawn to stories about sensible English ladies who throw propriety to the wind; his previous feature was Saving Grace, in which Brenda Blethyn — nobody’s idea of a drug dealer — parlayed her greenhouse expertise into growing pot for profit. Drugs, nudity — maybe Cole’s next comedy will concern a group of graying English women who form a rock band.

At its core, Calendar Girls is the story of the friendship between Chris and Annie. The rapport between Helen Mirren and Julie Walters is on wheels right from the start, when we see them suppressing giggles during a deadly dull WI meeting (“We’ve learned quite a lot about broccoli today, haven’t we?” chirps the hapless branch president). Chris’s enthusiasm for the calendar project gets everyone else fired up, sometimes against their better judgment. They hire a hospital orderly who does photography on the side, and soon enough the calendar is printed up and disappearing from stores. Suddenly the British press is at the ladies’ doors, and Hollywood beckons them for The Tonight Show and a TV commercial.

It’s here that Calendar Girls deepens and complicates. Wrapped up in the heady thrill of success, Chris neglects her husband (the always dependable Ciarán Hinds) and teenage son (John-Paul Macleod); she pushes the rest of the women to Hollywood, where they recline in luxury but aren’t aware of the nature of the commercial they’re expected to do. The media is sending the wrong message — everyone focuses on the nudity (and the rather sexist notion that the calendar is an amusing novelty — the novelty being that women past fifty could have something worth showing off) and not on the original altruistic impulse behind it. For a few scenes, and without diminishing our sympathy for her aims, Chris becomes monomaniacal in her quest to move more copies of the calendar; her goal is now to raise enough to cure cancer. This puts off Annie, who has seen enough exposure and, as she puts it, would trade all the calendar proceeds for one more hour with John. Narrative turns like this keep Calendar Girls from being a whitewashed, subject-approved biopic that ignores inconvenient emotions. They don’t keep the movie from being fast and engaging, especially with seasoned pros Mirren and Walters up front. Sometimes a news item fails to translate into a movie because, even though the events might have happened, the moviemakers can’t convince us that the same events could plausibly occur in the semi-factual world they’ve created. But we understand why these ladies became calendar girls, and we believe it.

The Last Samurai

December 5, 2003

Bearded and long-haired, Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai is a movie star’s egocentric dream of noble machismo — the white man who enters a foreign culture, an ancient warrior class, and proves himself worthy. It’s typical of Hollywood that Cruise has been chosen to play the lead in a heavily fictionalized account of the samurai rebellion led by Japanese hero Takamori Saigo in 1877. In real life, very needless to say, there was no disgruntled Civil War captain named Nathan Algren (Cruise), who, captured by samurai forces, learned to love the nobility and elegance of their ways. A significant piece of Japanese history takes a back seat to the spiritual reawakening of Tom Cruise.

I suppose Dances with Wolves (to which this movie owes more than to, dare I say it, The Seven Samurai) was similarly dishonest; but that was a guilty white dream of atonement for the atrocities perpetrated on Native Americans, and Kevin Costner was helping to defend an entire people, not a class of once-elite warriors who’d been part of an oppressive hierarchy. Some of us went along with Costner’s daydream, self-aggrandizing as it sometimes was, because it reflected a genuine curiosity about an extinguished way of life. Here, though, the bitter Algren has flashbacks to his own genocidal rampages under Custer; he drinks a lot and has an air of self-disgust over what he did and saw, and he’s Tom Cruise, so we’re supposed to forgive him.

Hired by the Japanese to train an army to destroy the rebellious samurai — who resist the modernization of the military and the nation — Algren, leading a bunch of shaky recruits, goes down, but not without a fight. The leader of the samurai, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe), sees how fiercely Algren defends himself (to point up Algren’s superhuman ferocity, director Edward Zwick — never one for subtlety — zeroes in on a flagpole Algren uses to hold off his attackers, the flag emblazoned with a growling tiger) and orders him taken alive. Back at samurai headquarters, Algren is nursed back to health by the widow (played by the model Koyuki) of one of the samurai he killed.

Guilt over battle prowess rubs elbows confusingly with pride in it. According to the Dances with Wolves template, Algren should be content to live among the wise and noble people in the sanctity of nature, and absent himself from the violence of his past. But these are samurai; making war is what they do. Since they won’t adopt modern tactics like guns or cannons, Algren is of little help to them other than being one more guy with a sword. He becomes proficient at swordsmanship, until even the more disdainful of the samurai grudgingly allow that this one has potential.

What is the theme — to say nothing of the point — of this lumbering if strikingly photographed (by John Toll) mini-epic? Edward Zwick seems smitten with the paradoxes and confusions of war or military action, as in Legends of the Fall, The Siege, Courage Under Fire, and his best film, Glory (which Zwick cribs from here when Cruise forces a jittery recruit to load and fire to prove that his army isn’t ready, just like Matthew Broderick firing his pistol right next to a black soldier as he tries to load and fire). I can’t really work out how Zwick feels about war from film to film, though in this movie it’s certainly useful as a violent panorama against which manhood is tested and proven. The real point of the film seems to be the poster image of a battle-ready Tom Cruise waving a sword and all decked out in gleaming red-and-black samurai armor.

Finally, forgive me, but why are we supposed to care about the extinction of the samurai way? The dying tradition here is that of men born into a warrior class that killed according to the wishes of their masters. (Japanese peasants, who were sometimes beheaded for having offended a samurai, probably had a far less romantic view of the class.) Whose idea was it to deliver a holiday blockbuster whose message is that it’s okay to kill as long as you kill with dignity? The Last Samurai glorifies war as a necessary way of life. It’s not a way of life I’m interested in putting on a pedestal, thanks.