Rightwing Film Geek

2003 TOP 10 — Number 6

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MASTER AND COMMANDER (Peter Weir, USA)

“Exactly.”

That’s what my inner 10-year-old boy kept telling me during this great, rousing adventure story. MASTER AND COMMANDER is exactly what Robert Louis Stevenson might have made if he had been a film-maker. It gets the period details right and in the right way, i.e. by not showing off that it’s getting them right, because the film is too self-confident to need to show off.

We just *see* that early 19th century surgery was done on tables that people had just eaten off of, without the didactic speech that, say, Hawkeye might have given in a purely hypothetical MASH episode about an operating room’s unclean wooden floor. We aren’t given a reason why the crew, when repairing their ship after an unsuccessful early skirmish with the evil French, goes to such trouble to repair the ship’s decorative touches that have no fighting value (although we can figure the subtext out — “this ship is England,” captain Russell Crowe tells his crew. Exactly. Appearances matter for their own sake, and love of country demands that one’s country be lovely).

Some of my favorite “just so” details were those that stand out in greatest contrast to our regnant pruderies. Grog rations are explicitly described as a sine qua non to keeping discipline and getting the men willing to fight. It sounds silly to us, until you remember that the Panama Canal was built by men who, to judge from the ration books, had to have been drunk or hung over the whole time. Mothers Against Drunk Sailing lay 170 years in the future. Even when a period detail *is* lingered over, it’s because there’s a reason for the characters to do so — like when such catch-as-catch-can surgery methods result in a piece of shirt caught in a wound, making it life-threatening. Exactly.

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My outer flaming-reactionary adult also thought MASTER AND COMMANDER was pretty good. Characters both wear uniforms and pray without an ocean of rationalization and hand-wringing. In Captain Lucky Jack Aubrey (played by Crowe in another great performance), MASTER AND COMMANDER shows exactly what a modern potrait of military heroism and masculine virtue from a pre-psychoanalytic world should be.

mastercrowe.jpgBy coincidence, I took a break from writing this to watch VH-1 Classic for a while and I saw the Bangles video “Hero Takes a Fall,” where one of the last images is of a mannequin being tipped over and shattering. Typical of our time but exactly *not* what MASTER AND COMMANDER is. Nobody will be talking about “undermining conventional notions of heroism” in this film.

Capt. Aubrey is in charge and has absolute authority, but is not a petty tyrant and knows how to lead. And when to bend — thanking and congratulating his men for everything (“now wasn’t that fun,” he asks a seaman at one point). He neither shows his doubts nor ducks difficult choices such as … triage. Aubrey loves his crew, but as their leader, not their friend, and thus discipline is possible. The salutes are appropriately awkward after a sailor is whipped for insubordination.

(By the way, for ungrateful niggledy-piggledy, can you beat this review from honor-bound James Bowman, the one film critic who I knew would love this movie. You have to keep reminding yourself as you’re reading it that he’s given it his highest rating). In addition, in the contrast between Crowe and Paul Bettany’s doctor, we get in nascent form, the coming cleavage between scientific man and martial man. But at this point, each still believed he had a duty to the other, and it creates marvelous tension between the two men and their agendas for the trip.

My friend Mike D’Angelo liked GLADIATOR, another Russell Crowe period piece, a bit more than I did, but I had his GLADIATOR reaction to this film. MASTER AND COMMANDER is filled with so many “just-so” moments and hits all the notes for this sort of swashbuckling adventure that I frankly was no longer a pedantic 37-year-old white-collar American professional masquerading as a film critic, but a wannabe-pedantic 10-year-old working-class British boy who just hated the frenchies and the jerries because they were the frenchies and the jerries. Exactly as this material needs me to be. Since the treacherous cheese-eaters are the bad guys in this movie, I was pretty much in clover from start to finish.

masterfrance.jpgMy favorite recent example of healthy national chauvinism came from Margaret Thatcher after Germany’s soccer team had eliminated England from the European Championship. She said, close as I can recall: “They may have beaten us at our national pastime, but twice this century, we’ve beaten them at their national pastime.” There is a speech late in MASTER AND COMMANDER that’s very much in that spirit, with frog insults worthy of one of Jonah Goldberg’s lamentably-dead annual Bastille Day columns. But again … exactly. Hatred of the enemy begins with images of the ruination they will bring upon the picture you have of your country. And this is exactly how soldiers are motivated. Short of the spectre of being forced to give up bangers in favor of pate de foie gras, there’s hardly a note of French evil not touched. It’s not quite at the level of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in HENRY V, but my using that speech as the standard of comparison should tell you how rousingly chauvinistic it is and how brilliantly Crowe delivers it.

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February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 7

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THE SHAPE OF THINGS (Neil LaBute, USA)

You like Neil LaBute or you don’t. THE SHAPE OF THINGS is didactic. It is mathematical. It is choppy. There is no middle ground. His art is true or it is hateful. All art that isn’t true should be destroyed because it is hateful. The actors don’t say the words. They recite their dialogue. Every shot is framed and can only be framed that way because that is the only way it would be true. Any other way would be false. And thus bad.

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THE SHAPE OF THINGS, La Bute’s third film based on his own original script (after IN THE COMPANY OF MEN and YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS), is about a feminist art student (Rachel Weisz) who snares a nerdy museum security guard (Paul Rudd) and, without ever exactly “making” him, gets him to improve himself, in terms of his wardrobe, his weight, and … eventually … more. There’s another couple in the film, who have their doubts about this relationship. And a fascination with it.

Part of this film’s greatness lies in Weisz’s performance of La Bute’s self-consciously clipped and mannered dialogue, back after a break for NURSE BETTY and POSSESSION. She is playing a character who *is* this overdetermined style. If you’ve seen David Mamet’s OLEANNA, you have a general idea of the kind of role she has — Debra Eisenstadt has a similar role, of a campus feminist, in that movie. Only Weisz is much better than Eisenstadt — with more conviction in herself and the incantations she is reciting, but without skimping on this manipulated/manipulating style.

In describing this film and LaBute’s other work as mannered and artificial and stagy (it is all these things), I fear I may be turning people off of this movie more than on to it, and I wouldn’t dispute anyone who says this material worked better as the stage play it originally was (there is not even a token attempt even to “air out” the play … 10 dialogue scenes are essentially played before some naturalistic backgrounds). THE SHAPE OF THINGS is also a movie that really demands to be seen twice or not at all — not because it’s difficult or incoherent — but because some things happen in the third act that recode the whole movie and even alters the kind of film we’ve been seeing.

labute.jpgBut LaBute’s style, worldview and vision is too distinctive not to treasure — how many American movies would have a line like “What ‘Take Back the Night’ rally did you find *her* at?” without explicitly coding the speaking character as hateful and the woman in question as oppressed. he’s an authentic prophet against the era and the world that exists, although it’s not yet clear in the name of what. Indeed, one of the things about the ending is that it casts doubt on rummaging through an artist’s work for windows into his soul. And his Slate diary from a few months ago gave me the impression that LaBute considers the whole idea of artist biography to be contemptible. But in his films’ caustic misanthropy and contempt for contemporary mores (though not their formal style), we may have an American Bunuel on our hands.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 8

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BUS 174 (Jose Padilha, Brazil)

This is the second of the three documentaries on my list, and what lifts all three films is that there’s more there than mere reportage or the capturing of an interesting or amusing corner of The Diversity Of The American (or Brazilian) Quilt. The latter is an estimable thing of course, and can make for an enjoyable couple of hours. But BUS 174 is much more.

On the surface, it’s a police procedural, recounting the June 2000 hijacking of a Rio De Janeiro bus by a former street child that gets botched by both the police and the perpetrator and so turns into a hostage situation and then worse on national TV (think the OJ-Bronco chase). Because all of Brazil was on the edge of its seat for five hours of an afternoon and evening over the “Bus 174 Hijacking” and the police never set up a security perimeter around the vehicle as it stood at the Rio bus stop, the footage of the crime-in-progress is … incredible, unbelievable. You never overcome your amazement that this footage exists.

padilha.jpgSo Padilha starts with the greatest episode of “Cops” in history. But then he does two other things: 1) he meticulously reconstructs the life story of the perpetrator, named Sandro, and does so sufficiently thoroughly while weaving it into the hour-by-hour recounting of the hijacking in all the right places, so that it all seems inevitable and tragic; and 2) he demonstrates Freddy Riedenschneider Heisenberger’s Uncertainty Principle of Policing (i.e., watching a thing changes it) and all the ways it contributed to the police botching the siege. Contrary to what you might think, the Brazilian police are not shown as brutal oppressores, trigger-happy Third World gangsters with badges.

Very early on, the film makes it clear that bus and car hijackings are not rare in Rio, but are generally handled extra-judicially in one (let it pass) or another (street justice) sense. But the media circus made both impossible. It forced police into doing *something.* But it paralyzed them from doing anything in particular, partly for fear of looking like “jackboot fascists” in the wake of investigations of police brutality, including the notorious Candelaria massacre of dozens of Rio street children, and partly from micromanagement at the highest levels of Brazilian politics. (There’s also a documentary to be made about the nearly-identically botched 1980 US attempt to rescue the Embassy hostages held in Iran.)

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That combination of necessity and paralysis explains why the police botched this siege *in this specific way* and how Sandro met his fate *in this specific way.* And so #2 defangs and even reverses the criticisms from some over #1 — that, by detailing his backstory, the film makes excuses for Sandro. Through this depiction of top-down chill, sent down like an Ashcroft order against racial profiling, BUS 174 actually implies all sorts of not-so-nice things about that very kind of “oh, poor misunderstood criminal who had a crappy life” discourses that #1, on the surface, represents.

Oh … and have I mentioned that BUS 174 is also formally dazzling? Two scenes take place inside Rio prisons where Sandro had been. In the first, the prison has been shut down and we see the cells where dozens of men had been crammed. In the second, we see an in-use prison, only Padilha shoots this scene entirely in reverse exposure — you’re basically looking at the film’s negative. The jail thus looks even worse than what our imagination had told us from the first scene because the inmates have been turned into an indistinct, wailing chorus trapped in a Dantean hell. Near the end, there is also a fatal shooting that we see in real-time — we go “wtf?” — and then Padilha gives it to us frame-by-frame, like the Zapruder film. And you’re on the edge of your seat as you see exactly … what … you feared … it was.

One of the saddest stats I know: this great but-in-Portuguese film, entirely accessible and not-the-least-bit arty, has made barely $100,000 in US release and has not played on more than five screens nationwide in any week. A handful of BUS 174 prints are still inching their way around the country. If it hits your town — try to catch it.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 9

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BUBBA HO-TEP (Don Coscarelli, USA)

Here’s the pitch: Elvis and JFK are both alive, in an East Texas nursing home. The other residents are having their souls sucked out by an Egyptian Mummy disguised as a redneck. So they go out and fight this “Bubba Ho-tep.” If that description and the title do anything for you at all, and you have at least one silly bone in your body, you won’t have a funnier time at the movies than this one.

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Despite the presence of Bruce Campbell, it’s not EVIL DEAD territory, exactly, where the violence is so extreme as to become funny. In fact BUBBA HO-TEP is basically (and early on, entirely) a comedy with a small amount of gore — it hardly works at all as a straight thriller. The opening sequence sets the tone as we get dictionary definitions of “ho-tep” and “bubba,” as if this was some serious self-important treatise (like Spike Lee defining “satire” at the start of BAMBOOZLED), and when I saw this film at 2002 Midnight Madness at the Toronto Film Festival, the audience was already laughing at the deadpan seriousness of it all.
Campbell is as terrific an Elvis as expected, but Ossie Davis as a black JFK more than holds his own than (“that’s how clever they are — they dyed me this color”). Both actors have great fun trying to out-underplay their other’s deadpan overplaying, if that makes any sense. But never is there is even a wink at the camera — both characters really believe they’re Elvis and Kennedy. I knew I was watching some kind of work of demented genius when, talking vaguely to avoid spoliers, we got a joke involving an iron lung. Also not to be missed: the only man-vs-bug battle that I can recall being shot from the insect’s POV.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 10

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THE BACKYARD (Paul Hough, USA)

I have pretty much written all I wanted to say or can say about this film at this post here. It’s now on home video, so the film is liberated from its greatest weakness — its undistinguished formal qualities would matter less on TV than a theater screen. It’s really funny. In a disgusted-snort kind of way.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Honorable Mentions

These were the films that just missed my Top 10 for 2003.

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GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING (Peter Webber, Britain) — It’s hard to say what’s most drop-dead gorgeous thing in this movie, Eduardo Serra’s cinematography, Ben Van Os and Cecile Heideman’s art direction or Scarlett Johansson’s face. All three superbly-controlled surfaces seem to do nothing, yet inspire by their mere calm existence. And they evoke and create a world with no artificial light, no mass-produced goods and a servility that can see beyond herself. Misses the Top 10 because Colin Firth as Vermeer gives the weakest performance of his career (oh … to transplant Michel Piccoli from LA BELLE NOISEUSE) and the film doesn’t offer much more than those three swoonable objects. Actually, that’s not quite true, Tom Wilkinson and Judy Parffitt are pretty good as the randy benefactor and the domineering mother-in-law, but they’re roles any middle-aged British character actor could do in his sleep.

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (Vadim Perelman, USA) — I’ve written a little about this film already. Misses the Top 10 for reasons stated there — I just never quite fell in love with it.

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DOWN WITH LOVE (Peyton Reed, USA) — This overthetop, overacted, overdecorated, overcostumed, and oversplitscreened homage/re-creation on the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies was the year’s tastiest bon-bon — with pastels that a Castro Street interior decorator would have found excessive. Last year’s Sirk-homage FAR FROM HEAVEN unintentionally showed how difficult it is for a re-creation to keep a straight face under all that artifice. But in an exaggerated comedy, unlike a weepie, such periodisms and incongruities contribute to the fun. I saw DOWN WITH LOVE a couple of days after watching PILLOW TALK, and it helps to have one of those films fresh in your mind. Misses the Top 10 because the last 20 minutes of the movie (roughly, after Renee Zellweger … um … gives a monolog) just isn’t very good or inspired; they’re tying up plot threads. But stay through the closing credits (or best of all, look at the DVD extras) to see Renee and Ewan MacGregor sing “Here’s to Love,” the best scene in the movie and one of the year’s best. Oh. And memo to the Academy: *This* was Renee’s best performance last year (insert grumble about Oscar ignoring comedies.)

phonebooth.jpgPHONE BOOTH (Joel Schumacher, USA) — Nearly every thriller will hype itself with the word “Hitchcockian,” causing film geeks to roll their eyes, but this is one that understands the details of The Master’s style. You can actually be familiar with ouevre and imagine Hitch making PHONE BOOTH. Naturalistically and logically, it doesn’t makes much sense, but I’m not certain it’s really supposed to, like NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The reliance on the villain having supernatural knowledge, the fact that it takes place in a “booth” and the voice on the phone demanding an admission of wrongdoing tells me there’s something else going on here, something that Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer were the first to note about Hitch. Works also as a showcase for director Schumacher (yes, really), who somehow manages to keep the basically one-set film visually alive under very constrained circumstances, like in REAR WINDOW or ROPE. Colin Farrell has an easy, meaty role to play, and though he isn’t exactly great, he’s like Patriots QB Tom Brady — doesn’t have the glowing stats but wins the game mostly by not messing up or fumbling the film away. Actors are cattle, etc. Misses the Top 10 because … well, Hitchcock would have made it better.

DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (Guy Maddin, Canada) — I’ve written a little about this film already. Misses the Top 10 because, fun though it was, I found my admiration a bit more distant than I prefer.

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SWEET SIXTEEN (Ken Loach, Britain) — When leftist director Loach hasn’t got politics on (the foreground of) his mind and makes kitchen-sink portraits of working-class urban Britons, he is quite a filmmaker, particularly as a director of actors. He gets a great central performance here from the nonprofessional Martin Compston in the role of Liam, a (smart and tough) juvenile delinquent approaching adulthood — naturalistic, funny, exuberant, defiant, and determined (in both senses). Maybe it takes a Scot to appreciate the exchange: “We’re just trying to keep your customers satisfied,” “You’re a right wee Simon and Garfunkel, you” “well, here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson” (looking at it on my computer screen, I see that it just doesn’t *read* funny. Spoken in Glaswegian patter, it’s hilarious. Trust me.) Misses the Top 10 because the film stacks things too much in Liam’s moral favor. Theo first made this point to me at Toronto, but I became convinced on second viewing during (being purposely vague to avoid spoilers) a stabbing scene — which isn’t really a stabbing scene. Between this and MY NAME IS JOE, Loach should make more films about Glasgow and fewer about Chile.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 1 Comment