Rightwing Film Geek

The soulless men of MATCH POINT

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MATCH POINT, Woody Allen, USA, 2005, 9

“And if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain … (and) we are of all men most miserable … what doth it profit me, if the dead rise not again? ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die’.”
– St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:14-32

The thing about great works of nihilistic art is that they can be indistinguishable from nihilism itself. Seemingly every critic in the world has agreed that Woody Allen’s “Match Point” is his best film in years. And it is. But it’s also his most thematically uncompromised, and therefore on the surface morally compromised, film … maybe ever.

Think back to Allen’s 1989 “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” a film he had not since surpassed in terms of critical esteem. “Match Point” is a loose remake and fleshing out of the Martin Landau-Sam Waterston-Anjelica Huston thread of that film (the “serious” part). Here, Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a failed Irish tennis player who takes a job as a “pro” at a swanky London club, and worms his way into the family of one of his clients, Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). He pursues Tom’s sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer) unto marriage, all the while maintaining an interest in Tom’s fiancée Nola (Scarlett Johansson), i.e., his future sister-in-law (what is it with Woody and inter-family romance?) By the end, there is a double murder (triple under “Connor’s Law”). And … WARNING: unpacking the film’s morality requires more-detailed discussion of the ending later.

But just as a film, “Match Point” is a pure pleasure to watch for a few simple reasons. This is the first Allen film to have a male protagonist not played by Allen who isn’t basically doing a Woody Allen impersonation (think Kenneth Branagh in “Celebrity” for the nadir of this). Meyers is a blank-faced amoralist – “Woody” might do something immoral but he could never not obsess over it with his shrink.

The story is so much cleaner and crisper than any of his recent work. It wasn’t simply, as many have suggested, the London setting that seems to have rejuvenated Allen the writer, in the same sense that a vacation in the Caribbean might “rejuvenate” you. But also the fact that in “Match Point” he’s hardly making a comedy at all (there are laughs, but if this were a TV show and the director credit removed, it’d definitely be slotted at the Emmys and by the marketers as “drama” or at best a “dramedy”). Allen’s comic gifts had sagged noticeably in recent years, but even when he had “it,” “it” was so specifically tied to a particular place and milieu and how people speak, that he needed to leave it to avoid trying to do what he could no longer do. He had to learn a new trick to avoid trying to do the one he no longer could, basically.

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One of the film’s best features is how the supporting cast plays the Hewetts – particularly Emily Mortimer as Chloe and Brian Cox as patriarch Alec. These are contemporary Upper-Class Brits, who drive out to their country estate in a Mercedes and a BMW convertible. But Allen, again perhaps because he can’t, never descends into explicit caricature – think Monty Python and the “Upper-Class Twit of the Year” sketch, or perhaps more realistically Robert Altman’s “Gosford Snark … er … Park,” for a sense of how this could have gone wrong.

The Hewetts are complacent but don’t represent Complacency, instead being basically good according to their soulless lights (with one notable offstage exception). There are few laughs explicitly at their expense, mostly the matriarch Eleanor (who belongs more in the class-neutral category of disapproving mother-in-law), but even they are handled with a light touch. For example, there are a couple of references to her fondness for the sauce; none of her falling down. Her tongue just gets a bit sharper, but in vino veritas and all that.

matchscarlett.jpgIn almost the opposite way, Scarlett Johansson plays her struggling American actress at first as being as self-consciously femme fatale as femme fatale gets. But she gets progressively less “filmy” as she becomes more agitated, and more real. By comparison, we only see Anjelica Huston in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” at the “stalker” stage at end of the affair, a time by which it is impossible to have too much sympathy for her.

Oh yeah . . . the end. The spoilers now start.

“Match Point” is a movie that, by the end certainly, has pushed morals to the limit – having become explicitly set in a godless world among soulless men. Chris murders a pregnant Nola to hide their affair and commits a second near-simultaneous murder – of the kindly old lady who lives next door to Nola – to cover his tracks. Like Martin Landau’s Judah in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (and unlike Raskolnikov in “Crime and Punishment,” which Chris is shown reading at the start), he decides he can live with his homicidal spree, and the movie ends “happily” with the birth of Chris and Chloe’s baby and the line said of the baby: “I’d rather he be lucky than great.” The universe is run by luck, i.e., chance – also the point of the film’s opening monolog and the image of a tennis ball on the net (an image rhymed twice – with a ping-pong net and Johansson; and a grating and a wedding ring).

There is one reference to religion as such, a dinner conversation in a swanky restaurant in which Chris says of his father, “After he lost both legs, he found Jesus.” The brother-in-law jokes “that doesn’t seem like a fair trade.” There follows shallow dinner-party repartee – “scientists are confirming that it’s all blind chance … but I’m enjoying every minute of it”; “despair is the path of least resistance … faith is the path of least resistance … stop talking about all this.” If that is a man’s idea of people engaging in profound spiritual talk, I can only pity him. This movie is set among those who know that Christ is not risen and so should not fight the beasts in Ephesus. “Give me Paul or give me Nietzsche,” the Presbyterian evangelist R.C. Sproul once said.

matchlady.jpgThere is also one late scene, the third-to-last, where Chris displays for basically the first time what one might call moral doubts. Alone at home one night, and drunk, he walks into the kitchen and talks to Nola and the old woman – communing with their ghosts. He says you learn to push guilt away – “you have to.” The neighbor points out that she and the unborn child were innocent. Chris quotes Sophocles as saying “to never have been born is the greatest boon of all.” He says it would be fitting if he was punished, but he’s not going to turn himself in like Raskolnikov. The detectives are no Porfirys; there’s no Sonya as an icon of God’s love (Chris can acknowledge its fittingness, but without God not its reality). Then there’s a new day and all is forgotten. This is what a long, dark night of the soul might look like if there were no soul in it.

Now I acknowledge that it’s more than possible that Allen takes all this seriously, as My Profound Definitive Statement On The Meaningless Of Existence. The only thing I can say, really, is that if I were a nihilist, “Match Point” would not be my idea of a brief for nihilism. I won’t suggest it’s somehow subversive “meta” work either – the theme “you can get away with it” is too constant a feature of Allen’s work, particularly since the Soon-Yi affair. I’d instead put it in the category of “work that says more than, or even contrary to, what it intends.” After all, Allen is pushing the case for nihilism to a double (or triple) murder, with at least one (or two) of the victims innocent by any possible lights – all for the sake of maintaining “a certain style of living” to which Chris says he has grown accustomed. And further, the Sophocles quote explicitly says non-existence is a blessing, presumably for Chris too, if he really believes it. (Or is it just cultural window-dressing for him?) If that’s a brief for nihilism, I have no idea what a brief against nihilism would even look like.

Is it possible to consume “Match Point” as “you can get away with murder”? Yes. (It’s also an anthropological fact that people do.) It’s also possible to come away from “Beavis and Butt-head” thinking “those guys are cool.” In fact, Beavis and Butt-head themselves would probably think that. But it requires the steeling of one’s conscience or the cauterization of one’s soul. Allen opens “Match Point” with Chris reading Dostoyevsky, and it couldn’t be more obvious that Chris (or Allen) either missed the point, doesn’t think of such things, or concluded that Raskolnikov’s mistake was having a conscience.

matchrhysmyers.jpgAllen Bloom once complained that contemporary American souls are “built without basements” and Chris, though British, seems to exemplify that. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers gives one of the greatest “bad” performances in movie history. He’s not really acting – he’s fairly blank and affectless for most of the movie. But his physical features – the wide mouth with the touch of a hidden sneer, the dark piercing eyes, like a more refined Joaquin Phoenix or a darker Malcolm McDowell in “Clockwork Orange” – provide the limited characterization of a very limited man. He shouldn’t have too much conflict or character because that would presuppose a soul he doesn’t have. Yes, he doesn’t wrestle with his conscience as Landau did throughout “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” But Judah is, in loose chronological terms, Chris’s spiritual grandfather. Judah also had a rabbi as a brother, and one who is blind by the end of that movie, rhyming with Chris’s legless father. Two generations after Judah, why should we think Chris would have much of a conscience with which to wrestle? Doesn’t concupiscence blind the intellect and all that? The very brevity, lateness, and tossed-off quality of that night scene says everything there is to say about a soul without a basement.
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Originally published at The Fact Is.

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January 26, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 2 Comments

NARNIA review

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NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (Andrew Adamson, USA, 2005, 6)

“I am saying that there is no teaching of knowledge, but only recollection.”
– Socrates, in Plato’s dialogue Meno

I made one Socratic discovery about myself when watching “Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”: That C.S. Lewis’s book is probably (no … certainly) the novel that has produced the strongest imprint on my mind, the one that I know as if from recollection. I have seen multiple movie adaptations of objectively greater novels (“Pride & Prejudice,” obviously) and objectively greater plays (“Hamlet,” obviously). But never, before “Narnia,” had I had so much recollection of the original novel when watching a movie. Never had I said to myself so often “no, that’s not right,” or “that’s not what happened,” or “why did they cut that out?” The amazing thing is that I hadn’t read Lewis’s novel for at least 15 years, though I’d seen an animated TV version about a decade ago. I have seen movie adaptations of novels and plays I had read more recently (again, the latest “Pride & Prejudice”) … without having that sort of reaction.

lamppost.jpgAnd yet, this is a very faithful adaptation. The plot points whiz by in the order and manner they should (the film is a short-feeling 140 minutes); the sibling rivalry that fuels much of the relationship between Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy is present, including the “reactionary sexism” in Lewis’s portrayal of boys and girls; the four siblings are as I had always mentally pictured them and they all give fine performances in the vein of “kids in a fantasy world”; there’s no “humanizing” or excuse-making for the White Witch this – evil looks and acts bad, first as temptation and carnal (Turkish) delights, then as the grotesqueries of the Witch’s army; the death and resurrection of Aslan are presented literally and objectively; a bunch of the Christ parallel details are there or added (“Behold the Great Lion”/”Ecce Homo”; “it is finished,” though not exactly at the right time; Susan and Lucy accompanying Aslan on the Via Dolorosa and weeping over his corpse like the Blessed Virgin Mary and Mary Magdelene).

Like I said about “Pride and Prejudice” a couple of weeks ago, this is too good a story not to get an at-least-passable movie out of. In many ways, that’s all you can really ask for – gawd knows, there’d hardly be a point to a loose adaptation of this novel. But my recollection kept getting the better of me, even though I understand quite well that adapters can’t get everything on the screen. I still remember, like it was yesterday, being a 10-year-old boy at John Ogilvie Hall, looking forward to the last few minutes before all the breaks – for lunch, playtime and day’s end. Mrs. White would use those last few minutes to read to us (in that year, she went all the way through both LWW and Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew”).

Even the smallest things, I noticed. Like how in the film we don’t find out until much later than we do in the book that the White Witch’s habit is to turn creatures into stone, until a new scene of Tumnus being thus “executed” in front of Edmund. But as a result, the filmgoer doesn’t get much of the eerieness of Edmund’s walk through the Witch’s “statuary,” or his taunting a lion that he wrongly thinks is Aslan.

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The cinematic high point for me is probably Tilda Swinton’s delightfully fruity performance as the White Witch, the evil Queen Jadis. She isn’t camping it up, exactly – the Witch is too cold and precise for that. With her frozen face and self-possessed body language, Swinton was born to play a character with ice running through her veins. In an opposite-of-Judi-Dench sort of way, Swinton also seems like a Satanic parody of royalty – close enough to the real thing to see the deformities. Yet she also recoils slightly, as if afraid of what Aslan can do, when confronting him with her demand for Edmund’s blood.

As for the computer-generated effects, they are mixed in their specialness. On the upside, the animals look and act like animals. Aslan really is a lion saying his lines; the wolves leap like wolves. But on the down side, a scene of Susan and Lucy riding Aslan looks like bad back projection, like riding in a car in a ’40s movie.

For the last couple of years, film critics have noted anti-Iraq-war subtexts in a variety of commercial films not explicitly about the war – for example George Romero’s “Land of the Dead” and Stephen Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds.” Here, for the first time that I recall, there are clear pro-war subtexts, none of them explicit carryovers from the Lewis book.

susan.jpgFor example, very early on, the Pevensie kids are at a London train station and there’s a quick shot of the adolescent Peter giving a longing look at Tommies going off to fight Hitler. This underlines what is only implicit in Lewis – Peter’s growing into manhood, as defined by his willingness and ability to use the sword that is a gift from Father Christmas. When Peter is first confronted by the White Witch’s wolves, Susan yells at him like a true isolationist: “this isn’t our war.” Later, she says “just because someone gave you a sword doesn’t make you a hero” and I was waiting for her to say “cuz A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ but a Sandwich,” in the fashionable lingo of today’s books. But guess whose actions, right at the end, save Peter from the coup de grace? This construction of adulthood as leaving behind childish things and taking up arms is also present in Edmund, who is portrayed as having the worst vice imaginable for a British child of that generation – disobedience. “Why don’t you just do as you’re told,” Peter several times says to Edmund, who is portrayed (much more here than in Lewis) as the rebel, maybe even the most autonomous. But by the end he’s saying “I’ve seen what the White Witch can do. We can’t leave these people behind.” And we get the added line of Tumnus saying he betrayed the tyrant for “a free Narnia,” just as he’s turned to stone.

But there are several adaptation cuts which I just think were unnecessary or excessive. The changes in Edmund noted above made me regret even more the decision to basically delete the chapter where Lewis follows Edmund’s trip from the Beavers’ abode to the witch’s castle. There we get all of Edmund’s thoughts, including his decision to worship another god (“I expect that she is the rightful Queen really. Anyway, she’ll be better than that awful Aslan.”)

professor.jpgFor another, the carefully considered conversation Peter and Susan have with the professor, which takes up a whole chapter in Lewis, is compressed into an accidental exchange of four or five lines about whether to believe Edmund or Lucy. Thus, we lose all of Lewis’ defense of fantasy and his whole understanding of his enterprise in writing the Narnia chronicles. In addition, Lewis has a whole chapter called “Deep Magic from Before the Dawn of Time,” explaining Aslan’s resurrection. The film makes no allusion to this at all, instead Aslan telling Susan and Lucy that the White Witch just hadn’t figured out the deep magic, which she cited to make her claim on Edmund the traitor’s blood, necessitating Aslan’s sacrifice. This undermines the Old Covenant/Deep Magic – New Covenant/Deeper Magic parallels, which deepen the Aslan/Christ parallels. I’d like to think the adapters (unnecessarily but understandably) wanted to avoid any taint of pure supercessionism, which many Jews consider anti-Semitic. But I think that’s crediting them with more theological sophistication than they have, since Aslan’s rebuke of the White Witch – “I was there when [the Deep Magic] was written” (a direct allusion to the opening of St. John’s Gospel) – remains. So I rather suspect they just didn’t get what the Deeper Magic was a reference to.

Probably the biggest disappointment for me was the role of Aslan. Nothing against Liam Neeson’s performance, which is quite good and quite “right-sounding.” But Aslan has little Providence here. There’s too little foreshadowing of him as the promised Messiah that half the Old Testament is about (and of course, no reference to the Father beyond the Sea). The Lockhornsesque marital quarrelling between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver (well-played though it was by Ray Winstone and Dawn French) dominates the kids’ time with them, so there’s little of their conversation about Aslan, and the Hope that He represented even before His coming. Mr. Beaver’s line “of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good” is absent (except for a reprise at the end, shorn of its Providential meaning). In the same way, the transition from winter to spring is way too sudden and too complete. It all makes Aslan appear a bit arbitrary. When he walks away at the end in an extreme long shot, it was all I could do not to yell at the screen: “Come back, Shane.”

I got that kind of sense about too much in the film to give it an unqualified recommendation. The secular film-makers tried their darndest, and in good faith I think, to keep the allegory intact. Necessary to get those “Passion dollars.” But the effect is like listening to a singer who learned a song phonetically in a language he doesn’t speak. Or hearing, as a native speaker, someone who learned your language in a classroom. The “music” just isn’t there.

Still, to overextend the metaphor, at least be grateful that Disney is singing from a Christian song sheet to the limits of its abilities. And isn’t rewriting the music.
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Originally published at The Fact Is.

December 22, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

A story this good is hard to ruin

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Joe Wright, Britain, 2005, 7

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a novel in possession of a good reputation must be in want of a film adaptation.”
Jane Austen, “Pride and Prejudice” (sorta)

Why?

Why do we need another adaptation of another Jane Austen novel? Particularly since this version of “Pride and Prejudice” looked so pedestrian and rote from the trailer and casting – Keira Knightley has never set my world on fire; and I love Judi Dench as much as the next guy, but must British casting directors be so unimaginative with the grande dame roles. The Internet Movie Database gives nine versions with this exact title (thus excluding the modernized “Bridget Jones Diary”), and with just a decade since the definitive 5-hour BBC miniseries with Colin Firth as Darcy, this film had “unnecessary” stamped all over it.

But really, that’s like asking “why marry” to Austen’s famous opening line about men in possession of a good fortune. After seeing this latest “Pride and Prejudice,” I was asking “why not?” After all, it’s only the greatest novel ever written in English and only the work that has pretty much defined the modern romantic comedy template for nearly 200 years. There’s nothing despicable about wanting to see our favorite novels dramatized and seeing what real-life actors and directors can do with (or against) the images in your mind. While driving, I often listen to an unabridged Books on Tape of Irene Sutcliffe reading “Pride and Prejudice.” Heck, I even liked the semi-Bollywood Aishwarya Rai film “Bride and Prejudice” from earlier this year. As for the novel itself, well, however little known its feelings or views may be, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding adaptation teams that it is considered as their rightful property.

Austen wrote such a corker of a story, so rich on so many levels, that as long as you’re reasonably faithful, you almost can’t completely screw it up – there’ll at least be a decent plot as skeleton for whatever skin and muscle the film-makers choose to wrap around it. And it is another truth not-so-universally acknowledged that our memories of the original and other adaptations fool us by “filling in” gaps and firming up thin moments.

As for the story, it’s mostly all there, though obviously some things are minimized – we don’t get much of a sense of the three younger girls until Lydia follows her heart and the results become central to the plot. For about 30 minutes, in fact, “Pride and Prejudice” quickly slashes through the compressed plot events – Jane’s rain-swept trip to Netherfield is hardly seen and the whole illness episode takes about a minute. But the choices made are generally smart. For example, Austen’s immortal, yet completely uncinematic, two opening paragraphs are entirely skipped in favor of a lengthy track through the Bennet home, establishing their material circumstances (think the start of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”). The book’s first dialogue – Mrs. Bennet eagerly telling her husband about the arrival of Bingley – is briefly overheard and swiftly out the side of the camera’s eye as it wanders through the house.

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ppsisters.jpgThis “Pride and Prejudice” is filled with this sort of shot – it’s easily the most cinematically flashy of the decade-long string of Austen adaptations. The camera is constantly moving, catching things – like Mary’s bad piano playing – on the fly. The film’s high point (I thought the same of the 1995 miniseries) is probably the dance between Darcy and Elizabeth, which becomes a serious sideways-accusatory conversation. Here, the camera twirls along with the pair, as if we’re dancing too and eavesdropping as Darcy and Elizabeth become more absorbed (and not in a good way) in each other and each other’s opinion. Director Joe Wright literally erases the other dancers – first in sound and finally in images until it’s just the two of them “quarreling” (to the extent that people quarreled publicly in Regency England) all alone and then taking their final positions. In visual look, this film’s scruffy gentility (and that’s the Bennets’ status as “poor gentry”) most resembles the Austen world of “Persuasion.” There’s more rain and dirt here than we often get in British period adaptations. The Bennets’ home is kinda drab (we see the shabby cracks in the walls and hear the squeaks in the floorboards) and not too far removed from people who worked the land – chickens in the kitchen, pigs in the backyard, and all that jazz.

There’s just no way around some of the ways “Pride and Prejudice” is unfilmable. It’s not just the felicity of Austen’s language – at least some dialogue is transferable (though much of the dialogue in the novel is irrelevant, if often funny or relevant via its irrelevance). It’s that Austen simply *told* most of the plot, often by describing people’s interior states, particularly the most important characters’ states. Austen’s characters also often wrote letters to one another, which are simply reproduced. Those are two techniques cinema resists, even the frequent attempts to reproduce the letter content as conversation. And inevitably, one will have disagreements with the characterizations as presented. Jane Bennet here is not as obviously good-souled as I see her; Bingley’s a bit stupider; I see Mr. Collins a bit more silly and flamboyantly self-absorbed than Tom Hollander’s loser with a constipated-face act; and Donald Sutherland just doesn’t fit the avuncular quality of Mr. Bennet’s weariness.

ppblethyn.jpgOther actors do much better, often simply because the casting is right. As Mrs. Bennet, Brenda Blethyn can play this kind of talkative “silly old biddy” role in her sleep. Jena Malone only gets a couple of scenes as Lydia, but she’s surprisingly effective as a pre-modern modern girl. Dench is just a compulsive addiction. I may groan at seeing her typecast (she’s Lady Catherine de Bourg, for those of you in Rio Linda). But those lips, those eyes – even those wrinkles – she just is regal imperiousness.

I had heard nothing but bad things about Matthew MacFadyen as Darcy, and his performance is definitely at the stiff end. But somehow that seemed right for Darcy’s proud diffidence, as if he can’t be bothered to be here. And MacFadyen does loosen up a bit toward the end – as he should. As for Knightley, she at least is the right age to play Elizabeth Bennet (for a camp classic, see 35-year-old Greer Garson in the 1940 MGM version). Knightley’s a bit gigglier than Jennifer Ehle was in 1995, but her Elizabeth is a woman so intelligent and such an observer that the outside world are mere characters in her own private joke. In other words, she personifies Austen’s ironic sense of humor, if a bit bluntly. But it also plays well against MacFadyen’s muffled Darcy. As if each performance, like a real marriage, needs the other to play off it well.

While the 1995 miniseries has entered the vernacular as the “Colin Firth” version, this one will be known as the “Keira Knightley” because it’s her joyful performance, and her joyful qualities as a person, that centers and defines the film. Which is why adaptations also, like marriages, need contrasts to play off each other.

So … that’s why.
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Originally published at The Fact Is.

December 8, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment