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December 20, 2013


Discussed here:
The Place Beyond the Pines
The Company You Keep
To the Wonder
The Counselor
Out of the Furnace

I have read that Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines is an indie film. If so it does not look it in the least. It has a grand sweep in three acts, and its themes are large. Set in Schenectady, New York, the first act opens on a stunt motorcycle rider, a carny named Luke (Ryan Gosling) who is a peripatetic loner. When the tour brings him back into town, he shows up on a past girlfriend's doorstep and learns he has a son. The second act involves Avery (Bradley Cooper), a police officer who also has an infant boy. The second act closes when  the two men's paths cross. By the third act, Avery is a successful politician, both men's sons are teens, and the narrative takes the form of the sins of the fathers and the legacy a machismo culture of manhood leaves the next generation. We could suspend our disbelief in the last act were it not stretching our credulity so thin. Still, The Place Beyond the Pines is worth watching, and Cianfrance should be credited for his willingness to confront existential questions of moral choice and responsibility.

(In  conceiving the character of Luke, Ryan Gosling reportedly told Derek Cianfrance, "Hey, D. How about the most tattoos in movie history?" To this end he added a face tattoo of a dagger dripping blood. Cianfrance told him, "Look, if I was your parent, I would tell you, don't get a face tattoo. You're going to regret it. But you have to be this guy, not me, so do what you want." At lunch on the first day of shooting Cianfrance sensed something bothering Gosling. "Hey, D, can I talk to you for a second? I think I went too far with the face tattoo." Cianfrance said, "Well, that's what happens when you get a face tattoo: You regret it." Gosling said, "I know. You think we can take it off and reshoot everything?" "Absolutely not. This movie's about consequence. And now you've got to live with it for the rest of the movie.")

Motivated by the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the Weather Underground split from the SDS and issued a "Declaration of a State of War" against the United States government in 1970. Between 1969 and 1975 the group targeted police stations, banks, and a number of prominent government buildings for bomb and arson attacks. Considering the number of strikes they carried out, it is a wonder there were so few casualties. In 1970, a bomb at the SFPD's Golden Gate Park branch killed one officer and injured several more, though no organization claimed credit, and later that year, three Weathermen were killed when the nail bomb they were constructing in a Greenwich Village townhouse detonated. The organization slowly disbanded, though its final adherents carried out the 1981 Brinks armored car robbery with members of the Black Liberation Army, stealing $1.6 million, and killing two police officers and one Brinks guard in the ensuing shootout. Throughout the years, secret federal grand juries were convened and the Chicago Police Department, the NYPD, and the FBI pursued the militants. Some were arrested, some came forward on their own, others managed to successfully remain underground.

Robert Redford's The Company You Keep is adapted from Lem Dobbs's novel. It uses, as the central experience of the former Weathermen we meet, an amalgam of Weather Underground attacks: a bank robbery that went tragically wrong leaving a security guard dead. The film opens thirty years hence when, weary of her secret, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) turns herself in, generating headlines. Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) is a hungry, young investigative reporter who latches on to the story, but when he visits Solarz in jail she thwarts his desire for a simple I-have-seen-the-error-of-my-ways plea for forgiveness. Instead she is defiant. This sets up a chain of events that puts her former fellow activists at risk, at the center of which is Jim Grant (Robert Redford) who, because he was not present at the robbery, sets out to find his former lover, Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), who, he hopes, will testify to his absence.

Ben's perspective-less judgment is juxtaposed with the self-judgment of aging people who have grappled with the ethics of their actions for over three decades and profess through that painful lens their continued commitment to their ideals. The question of means versus ends hangs over the story, and though it is a dilemma the film confronts, it is one that it refuses to resolve. The reporter Ben wants a tidy narrative, with right and wrong assigned their proper, righteously indignant places. Instead, The Company You Keep asks us to consider the Weather Underground's terrorism in a broader context that many in the audience will have forgotten or are too young to have an awareness of, and gives the lie to easy moralizing and compartmentalization.

(Independent Lens: The Weathermen Today)

Terrence Malick's To the Wonder, like The Tree of Life, attempts to find cosmic meaning in ordinary lives, but this time the narrative, or what there is of it, isn't up to the challenge. The Tree of Life presented, with stunning visual creativity that was understated and audacious by turns, the microcosm of a boy's interior life, within the microcosm of the family, within the microcosm of the community, within the macrocosm of Earth, within the larger microcosm of the cosmos within eternity. It was a staggering undertaking, and worth the journey. But To the Wonder, as beautiful as it is, looking like a Wyeth painting on the screen, just cannot stand up to its grand designs. If not religion per se, then spirituality is too obvious to its ambition, and none of the characters appears grounded enough to sustain the kinds of deep human connections the film seems to want to be about. Neil (Ben Affleck) is a somewhat autobiographical Malick who moves between two women. The more ethereal of the two says of his inability to make choices, "Weak people never bring anything to an end themselves. They wait for others to do it."

I was not alone in my annoyance at the incessant twirling with which both women are afflicted. A.O. Scott echoes my feelings when he notes that "what Jane and Marina have in common, apart from their attraction to Neil, is a serious commitment to twirling. Not the highly disciplined marching-band, baton-assisted kind, but rather the languid, flowing-dress-wearing, I’m-so-in-tune-with-the-universe-that-I-will-never-get-dizzy kind."


Ann Fontaine's Adore is based on Doris Lessing's novella The Grandmothers, and is notable in this section on the consequences our actions engender for having none. Two women -- Roz (Robin Wright) and the widowed Lil (Naomi Watts) -- have been friends since childhood. When Roz's husband is offered a job in Sydney, it would be professional suicide for him to refuse, but Roz can't find it in herself to leave Lil and the bubble in which their relationship exists in their next door proximity. As a leisurely summer ensues, Lil gives in to the seduction of Roz's son, and, in what begins as retaliation, Lil's son likewise seduces Roz. A.O. Scott observes that "...the same movie about a couple of dads sleeping with each other’s 20-year-old daughters would need, at a minimum, to confront the ickiness of the situation. Really, such a movie would be unlikely to make it into theaters, in spite of the commonness of real-life relationships between older men and younger women."

The day after I screened Cormac McCarthy's The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott, I raved about it to some people, one of whom remarked, "The reviews say it's terrible." Aghast, my first question was, What reviews? "Rotten Tomatoes." (Who thinks Rotten Tomatoes is a credible source?!?) For what reasons? "They say it's predictable." Well, there are many predictable tropes. What matters is what is done with them. And in fact, in exchanges with the Counselor, first nightclub owner Reiner (Javier Bardem) and then hustler Westray (Brad Pitt), both of whom know what they are talking about, try again and again to dissuade the Counselor by enumerating in successive encounters each of the terrifying consequences the Counselor should expect -- to no avail. The Counselor, brilliantly realized by Michael Fassbender, is possessed of an unshakable naïveté that neither Reiner nor Westray can penetrate. "I'm in," he insists.

The film is set, of course, on the border, a shadowland where conscience is a stranger. The first irony is the title itself. The Counselor -- we never learn Everyman's name -- does not give counsel but is counseled by each egregious character with whom he associates and the inevitable ensues. Even as he advises, Westray's refrain is, "I can't advise you, Counselor." The final scene in which the magnitude of consequences slowly penetrates the Counselor's consciousness is masterful as each scrim falls away.

Reiner lives in a luxury compound with Malkina. He makes it clear to the Counselor that she runs everything and she scares him. Cameron Diaz's malevolent Malkina slithers through the film; you expect to see a forked tongue dart at any moment. Even people who haven't seen the film seem to have read about her sex scene with Reiner's sports car. It is the funniest sex scene you will ever watch. Asked if it was gratuitous I said, No! You really need to laugh. It saves you from drowning in dread.

Early in the film the Counselor visits a dealer in exceptional diamonds. He is going to propose to his beloved Laura, beautifully realized by Penélope Cruz. The dealer explains the physical qualities of the diamonds, but more importantly, explains their role. They signify both a woman's beauty and her vulnerability, he says. "Each diamond is a cautionary tale." That is the first of many times that the word "cautionary" will come up in McCarthy's script.

If the film has a flaw, and this is really quibbling, it could be that Cormac McCarthy might have done better to have written the novel, then adapted it to the screen. Especially toward the end, it becomes very literary, which did not bother me, but I can see it as potentially annoying to some. As I say, this is such a minor nit to pick. Instead, McCarthy and Scott should be commended for trusting to a smart and literate audience.
NYT Critics' Pick

In 1981, I found myself in the dying steel mill town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh. I could not imagine being in a more God-forsaken place, and did not realize I would be there for the next 20 years.

Braddock, PA, where Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace is set, is closer to Pittsburgh, just east on the banks of the Monangahela River, but it is another in the forlorn Rust Belt of mining and mill towns. The film asks us to look at what happens when a community's mores and codes of tradition have become so vulnerable that they can no longer sustain a meaningful social fabric.

Out of the Furnace pulses with intense, fully realized performances. Christian Bale is Russell Baze, a hard working mill rat until that is gone, too. His kid brother, Rodney, has come back from his third tour in Iraq and becomes a kinetic, seething powder keg in a brilliant performance from Casey Affleck. Perhaps ironically, this throwaway soldier can't bring himself to throw a fight for his handler who can forgive him or for the sadistic, crack addled hustler who can't -- Willem Dafoe and Woody Harrelson, also in fine form.

Whereas World War II brought a nation together and was followed by sustained prosperity, upward mobility, and an overall optimism about America and its supposed manifest destiny even under the pall of the Cold War, Vietnam tore the nation apart. Even so, Vietnam, as failed a war as it was, was fought by a draft army that spread the sacrifice across the socio-economic spectrum. By contrast, our recent hostilities have been fought by a volunteer army, canon fodder recruited from inner cities and failing manufacturing towns and vanishing family farms. We pay paltry lip service to our soldiers, who are relegated to places of which we give not a thought. We call them heroes and display yellow ribbons in hollow gestures through which we hope to glorify the futile wars our nation wages in the name of "democracy" and "freedom," whatever we mean by either of those words. And when our wounded return home, and they are all wounded, we give them neither democracy nor freedom.

Masanobu Takayanagi's cinematography pans over pastoral mountain landscapes that are home to brutal realities, and  Dickon Hinchliffe's beautiful, mournful soundtrack underscores the tragedy of a country that is indifferent to the sweat of its workers and the blood of its veterans, both of whom they would toss out like rubbish.

December 18, 2013


"You want to torture me, but I can simply kill myself first. Do you want revenge, or do you want the truth?" Oh Dae-su's captor Lee Woo-jin, Park Chan-wook's 2003 Oldboy

Revenge is, as they say, as old as the hills. My paternal grandmother Kempf was named Nancy Jett Cockrell, and both the Cockrells and the Jetts figured prominently in the notorious Breathitt County Kentucky Feuds of the latter half of the 19th century, more infamous and far bloodier than anything between the more storied  Hatfields and McCoys. 

The December 9, 1878 New York Times printed a special dispatch that began, "Affairs in Breathitt County are in a far worse condition than reported heretofore. The only two newspaper men who have made their way into that county arrived in Louisville to-day, and describe a most deplorable state of society." 

"The Beginning of the Strife," the article explains, began "During [the Civil War when] they were permitted to do pretty much as they wished, and got so used to killing their enemies on the slightest pretext that they could not or would not leave off the habit when they were called upon to do so." 

The reporters seek to discover the initiating incident for the feud, but the stories differ radically: the theft of a watermelon; a group of marauders' quarrel over the division of their spoils of war; a little boy who "set afloat a slanderous story about a Miss Cockerill;" etc. Whatever sparked the feud, the reporters were there seven years later to investigate its escalation over a tangle of events: a disputed County Judge election won "by a majority of eight votes," a subsequent contested Common School Commissioner's election, and the judge's enforcement of Jason Little's -- "one of the famous Little brothers" who murdered his wife to marry another woman -- court appearance.

"All [who came to the court] were armed to the teeth, and most of them were under the influence of whiskey. Instead of stacking their arms [in front of the courthouse] as they had agreed to do, they went about the streets, some with two or three revolvers strapped to their belts, and some with Sharp and Ballard rifles." That was on Monday. On Tuesday, "Men crazed with whiskey charged through the streets, afoot and on horseback, brandishing their revolvers and carbines, and threatening to kill every person who came in their path. Women and children ran through the yards and gardens screaming with fear, and some of them fainted. Blood flowed freely." 

"On Wednesday morning Judge Randall, without waiting to adjourn court, jumped upon his horse and took an unceremonious departure."

A second dispatch concludes, "One thing is certain -- the men of both factions...are camping out in the brush, with plenty of arms and munitions of war with them. Hidden among the mountains, they are so secluded from the rest of mankind that they seem to forget there is an outside world, and dream that the only object in life is to fight out to the death, if necessary, the petty disputes that arise among themselves."

In Renaissance England, not surprisingly considering the political climate of the times, the revenge tragedy gained enormous popularity. Thomas Kyd is credited with establishing  the genre with The Spanish Tragedy, written some time between 1582 and 1592, but Shakespeare's Hamlet and the Scottish play are the most theatrically well-known and oft-performed. After Shakespeare's plays, John Webster's The White Devil (1612) and The Duchess of Malfi (1612-1613) are staged more often today than any other Jacobean dramas, though J. R. Mulryne argues that "Webster mockingly repudiates the revenge tragedy form in The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi, [where he] intentionally creates a world of 'moral and emotional anarchy.'"

The genre is generally traced to three sources. Most commonly, the Roman Stoic Seneca, who wrote in the first century CE, is credited with creating the original revenge tragedies, though certainly the theme is a staple of mythology and religion. Seneca's works were first translated into English in 1559, and in the ensuing 20 years, the plays were widely circulated, especially MedeaAgamemnon, and Thyestes, from which Shakespeare borrowed plot elements for Titus Andronicus -- all tales of blood revenge. Some critics argue that the Italian nouvelle, which often revolves around feuding families -- the premise upon which Shakespeare sets Romeo and Juliet -- figured as another influence, and some that medieval contemptus mundo ("contempt of the world") is reflected in the single-mindedness, preoccupation with death, and dismissal of the quotidian for a mystical stoicism that are so much a part of the avenger's character.

Spike Lee's Oldboy is a remake of Park Chan-wook's 2003 film, the second in Park's Vengeance Trilogy (bracketed by the 2002 Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and the 2005 Lady Vengeance) and based on a manga by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Minegishi. Like the original, it unfolds in concentric circles of revelation as to who is the avenged and who the avenger.

The title "Oldboy" itself gives the protagonist's tale (Oh Dae-su's in Park and Joe Doucette's in Lee -- a diminutive of Joe Doe?) an aura of Everyman -- the universal id, the primal lust for  payback, blood reckoning, an eye for an eye. It is ancient, a permanent aspect of the human condition. Much as we might like to think we have evolved beyond base desires for vengeance, culturally at least, the demand for retribution is as fundamental today as it has ever been, to judge from our ten years and going engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention all of the dirty wars the U.S. is engaged in across the globe).  

In an excellent 2009 overview of the movies of the first decade of the 21st century, A.O. Scott considers the resurgence of vengeance as a cinematic theme. He argues that with the turn of the century, we got a mixed bag of fantasy, superheroes, "midbudget Oscar bait, Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen...and the Transformers movies, along with everything else."

"Everything else including terrorism, war, political polarization, environmental anxiety and an economic bubble whose bursting cast a backward pall over the era’s extravagance, much as 9/11 seems to shadow even those pictures conceived and released before the attacks.

"How else to make sense of the prevalence of revenge as a motive, a problem and a source of catharsis? It was hardly a new topic — payback has been the common currency of cowboys and samurai, rogue cops and righteous criminals, for a very long time — but in noncomic genres vengeance could seem like the only game in town. Sometimes the urge to repay blood with blood was treated with skepticism or at least with a sense of moral complication, as in
Mystic River or In the Bedroom or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. But the tone for mainstream commercial entertainment was set early on, when Gladiator won the first Best Picture Oscar of the new decade. And nearly every hero thereafter, from Aragorn and Harry Potter to Spider-Man and even the newly young Mr. Spock and the newly sad James Bond, was caught up in a Manichaean struggle defined by an endless cycle of vendetta and reprisal.

"This was even true of Jesus, whose travails in Mel Gibson's 
Passion of the Christ played like the first act of a revenge drama, the one in which the hero is humbled as pre-emptive justification for whatever fury he comes back to unleash at the end. The violence in that film, which seemed shocking at the time, now seems fairly typical of a mainstream popular cinema saturated with images of bodily torment.

"And also, perhaps, of a taste for primal, antimodern scenarios of action and reaction, in which the nuances of politics and the deliberative institutions of justice are treated with suspicion, even contempt. ....

"There is something profoundly regressive in the vision of a civilization stripped down to an essentially violent core...." 

Joe Doucette (convincingly played by Josh Brolin) is a drunk and a bully, a victim of the world just barely holding on to his advertising accounts. His wife has taken their infant daughter and moved out, we can only assume out of self defense. This particular day is the daughter's birthday, but instead of taking her present to her, Doucette embarks on a tanked-up night of self pity. He awakes imprisoned in what appears to be a seedy hotel room. The news on the TV reveals why he is condemned, but it does not help him establish the identity of his jailer, who will keep him there for 25 years (10 years longer than Park's protagonist). As the years pass, the TV is also a source of information, in the form of talk shows, about his daughter. (There is much more to all of this than what I say here, but I don't want to give anything away.)

Viewed as a two-act play, Doucette's confinement constitutes Act I, and follows the arc of an individual from wallowing fatalism to averted suicide to resolve. He religiously follows the self-help programs offered up from his TV and becomes a disciplined body builder and practitioner of yoga and meditation, all in the service of finding his captor and avenging himself. 

Act II opens with Doucette's mysterious release as he emerges from a trunk in a vacant field. His difficulty maneuvering through a world that has in practical ways become foreign to him is alleviated by a social worker he encounters when his path intersects with a mobile drug rehab clinic. When she discovers his story, she becomes his aide in tracking the identity of his captor, a process that will bring him face to face, first with his distant, then his recent, past.

For the most part, Lee's Oldboy is faithful to Park's, not only in the outline of the plot, but in visual tone and narrative pacing. Writing for Roger Ebert Movies, Matt Zoller Seitz makes the following astute observation

"The big problem with Lee's Oldboy is that for all its dark confidence, it doesn't reimagine the original boldly enough. This isn't like Martin Scorsese's Cape Fear, David Cronenberg's The Fly or Jonathan Demme's The Manchurian Candidate....all of which drastically rethought their inspirations. Lee's Oldboy, in contrast, is more like Point of No Return, the American remake of La Femme Nikita. It's so close to its predecessor in so many ways that I can't see much reason for it to exist, except to give xenophobic viewers an experience similar to the original, but minus the subtitled Korean and the octopus-eating scene—and with a more ostentatiously cartoonish bad guy, and lot more monologuing to explain the convoluted plot."

Scott provided the answer to the question of why Spike Lee finds the re-telling of Park's tale as relevant as it was 10 years ago. In the ensuing decade, the violence we were shocked by "now seems fairly typical of a mainstream popular cinema," as Scott says. Our "taste for primal, antimodern scenarios of action and reaction, in which the nuances of politics and the deliberative institutions of justice are treated with suspicion, even contempt," has not been slaked. Rather it has left us hungry for more.

We are in the habit of employing the phrase "as the tale unfolds," and Doucette's tale is one of pealing back the folds of many veils. What I have outlined are the broadest brush strokes of the story. Much as I am tempted, I will not produce a spoiler at this point.

Oldboy is a revenge tragedy, yes, but it also has much of the three blind men and the elephant in it. As the convolutions of the story unravel and recoil, we realize that each character understands events through the lens of his own ego. The story might also serve as a morality tale, suggesting to us that our judgment of the world is not necessarily accurate, that we might be surprised to discover that the opinions we construct around other peoples are not at all the same as the image they have of themselves as a people, and their judgments about us might equally surprise. This is the primary reason that Lee's softening of the final scenes does such a disservice. The story demands the hyperbole and intensity that Park invests in it. It is a tragedy, after all. For all the gore and stylization of both films, in the end Park's protagonist undergoes a profound transformation of the soul that is lacking in Lee's telling. Maybe he had to tone it down to appease the studio, but it detracts from the catharsis the narrative is ultimately there to serve.

Park Chan-wook's 2003 Oldboy

  Oldboy 2013 film poster.jpg
Spike Lee's 2013 Oldboy

Postscript: Vengeance in the Movies

Shakespeare has had his share of feature film productions. There has been no end of film adaptations of Hamlet, and I am going to ignore Romeo and Juliet here. The Scottish play has been brought to the screen seven times: in silents from J. Stuart Blackton in 1908 and John Emerson in 1916, Orson Welles's in 1948, Roman Polanski's in 1971, Arthur Allan Seidelman's in 1981, Jeremy Freeston and Brian Blessed's in 1997, and Geoffrey Wright's in 2006, as well as a half dozen adaptations. Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender are slated to star in an upcoming version directed by Australian Justin Kurzel.

Othello has one silent production, Dimitri Buchowetzki's in 1922, and four later screen versions: David MacKane's in 1946, Orson Welles's in 1952, Sergei Yutkevich's in 1955, and Oliver Parker in 1995, as well as a half dozen adaptations.

By contrast, King Lear has seen only two significant film versions: Grigori Kozintsev's in 1971 and Peter Brook's in 1971, but it has been adapted by Akiri Kurosawa in the 1985 Ran, Jean-Luc Godard in 1987, Jocylyn Moorhouse in the 1997 A Thousand Acres, and the plot has influenced numerous family dramas. Julius Caesar has seen only three film incarnations: David Bradley's in 1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's in 1953, and Stuart Burge's in 1970. Charlton Heston directed Antony and Cleopatra in 1972, Ralph Fiennes Coriolanus in 2012, and Julie Taymor Titus Andronicus in the 1999 Titus

Other notable film versions of classic revenge plays are Derek Jarman's 1991 Edward II based on the 1593 play by Christopher Marlowe, Alex Cox's 2002 Revengers Tragedy based on the 1606 play attributed to Thomas Middleton, and  Marcus Thompson's 1998 Middleton's Changling based on Thomas Middleton and William Rowley's 1662 The Changling.
Some of the more significant revenge narratives adapted for the screen are:
Ingmar Bergman's 1960 The Virgin Spring from the 13th-century Swedish ballad  "Töres döttrar i Wänge" ("Töre's daughters in Vänge")
J. Lee Thompson's 1962 and Martin Scorsese's 1991 Cape Fear from John D. McDonald's 1957 novel The Executioners
John Boorman's 1967 Point Blank from the 1962 novel The Hunter by Donald E. Westlake writing as Richard Stark
Henry Hathaway's 1969 and the Coen Brothers' 2010 True Grit from Charles Portis's 1968 novel
Mike Hodges's 1971 Get Carter from Ted Lewis's 1969 novel Jack's Return Home
Robert M. Young's 1986 Extremities from William Mastrosimone's 1982 play
Barry Levinson's 1996 Sleepers from Lorenzo Carcaterra's 1995 novel
Christopher Nolan's 2000 Memento from his younger brother's short story "Memento Mori"
Todd Field's 2001 masterpiece In the Bedroom from the 1979 short story "Killings"  by Andre Dubus
Martin Scorsese's 2002 Gangs of New York inspired by Herbert Asbury's historical account
Tetsuya Nakashima's 2010 Confessions from Kanae Minato's 2008 novel

...and some notable original screenplays are:
George Miller's 1979 Mad Max
John Woo's 1989 The Killer
Peter Greenaway's 1989 The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover
Clint Eastwood's 1992 Unforgiven
Gasper Noé's 2002 non-linear narrative Irréversible
Mike Hodges 2003 I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
Lars von Trier's 2003 Dogville, which was to be the first in his Land of Opportunities or US Trilogy, followed in 2005 by Manderlay, but the final segment, Washington, was never realized
Quentin Tarantino's 2003 Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2004 Kill Bill: Vol. 2 also initially conceived as a trilogy, though Vol. 3, originally planned for a 2014 release, probably will not be realized

December 16, 2013


Discussed here:
Chasing Ice
West of Memphis
The Gatekeepers
Stories We Tell
20 Feet from Stardom
Dirty Wars
The Armstrong Lie

I wish could take global warming naysayers, strap them into chairs, force their eyes open with specula ala Dr. Brodsky's Ludovico technique, and subject them to Jeff Orlowski's Chasing Ice in a continuous loop. The film documents the work of James Balog, a scientist and photographer for National Geographic who, frustrated by the lack of attention paid to climate change, set out with his team on a long range project to definitively show the rapid retreat of ice in geographical regions where it is crucial to a stable ecology. He reasoned that maybe a picture really is worth a thousand words, so his Extreme Ice Survey has been capturing stop-motion, time-lapse photographs of remote areas of Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, and Montana since 2007. The film also chronicles the serious knee injuries and debilitating pain Balog overcomes in order to pursue his mission to raise public awareness of what you and I are allowing to become an inexorable ecological tragedy. This reality eats at me -- and I have no children. Why are we not tearing down the doors of Congress?
NYT Critics' Pick

In 1993, three eight-year-old boys were found dead in West Memphis, Arkansas. Found guilty of committing the murders, which the prosecution suggested were tied to a satanic cult ritual, Jesse Misskelley, Jr. and Jason Baldwin were sentenced to life, Damien Echols to death. Their case was first documented by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in a trilogy collectively titled Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Revelations (2000), and Purgatory (2011), which was nominated for the 2012 Best Documentary Oscar. The 1996 film brought celebrity support to finance a legal team that unmasked the incompetence of the West Memphis police. With newly produced DNA evidence, the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed to permit the three to invoke the Alford doctrine, which allows a person to assert his innocence and win release -- only if he maintains a guilty plea.

Amy Berg's West of Memphis focuses on death row inmate Damien Echols and  landscape architect Lorri Davis, the woman who begins a correspondence with him after seeing Paradise Lost in 1996. Though Damien grew up in poverty and unread, as Davis sends carton after carton of books, he devours them. The fact that he thinks seriously and critically about what he reads is reflected in his correspondence with Davis. She makes his cause her life, moving from New York City to Little Rock in 1998, and they marry -- in the prison visiting room -- the following year. When he is exonerated they can finally embark on their life together. West of Memphis is a powerful character study of two determined and principles people fighting a system whose very raison d'etre is to defeat them.

Geoffrey Gray, "A Death Row Love Story," New York Times Magazine, October 13, 2011

Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers is composed of a series of interviews with the six living former heads (from 2005 until 2011) of Shin Bet, Isreal's secret internal intelligence and counter terrorism agency. All agree that Netanyahu's current policies rejecting a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians are misdirected, and that the torture and assassinations of Hamas leaders bode for a dark future. All have also been passionately committed to fighting terrorism and make no distinction between Arab terrorism and domestic terrorism. One man's terrorist is another man's patriot, one pragmatically observes. Ami Ayalon, who headed Shin Bet from 1996 to 2000, is concerned, however, that "Most Israelis are not listening."
NYT Critics' Pick

Avi Dichter

Ami Ayalon

Avraham Shalom

There is probably a story from your childhood that you know you would have been too young to remember, and yet, because you have heard it so often, feels like a part of your own first-hand memory. There are also stories that evolve in our memories from mere tellings of this-then-this-then-this to artful narratives we subconsciously hope will evoke deeper empathic reactions from those we tell the stories to. Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell is a remarkable, moving film that explores many of the questions about the messiness of life lived and the deep need we have for narrative to impose order on memory so as to give experience meaning. Using home movies, family snap shots and re-enactments interspersed among contemporary interviews with relatives and family friends, Polley seeks to discover the story of her mother. Which metaphor describes what emerges as each teller's perspective accrues: widening ripples, kaleidoscopic patterns, patchwork pieces? Each of us is ordinary and mysterious, each harbors secrets. That Polley's story does not exploit her mother's, but pays tribute to it, is an achievement. See Stories We Tell.
NYT Critics' Pick

“And the colored girls go/ Doo do doo doo do doo doo do doo …” sings the late Lou Reed in "Walk on the Wild Side." Using archival footage and contemporary interviews, Morgan Neville's 20 Feet from Stardom explores the lives of the women, mostly of color, who have given depth, texture, and harmonic complexity to rock stars, mostly white and mostly male, for almost 50 years. It comes as no surprise that many of them were musically nurtured in the African-American churches of their youths. No small number, in fact, are daughters of African-American preachers. That heritage has enriched the broader story of American music, but the women's personal stories have a decidedly bitter-sweet quality. Early on, each saw backup singing as the gateway to her own recording career. Unfortunately, the trajectory they imagined for themselves has eluded all of them to a greater or lesser degree. Though we know by heart the anticipated primal timbre that will rip through "Gimme Shelter," too few of us can say, "That's the great Merry Clayton."

Darlene Love
Darlene  Love

Merry Clayton
Merry Clayton

Judith Hill
Judith Hill

Claudia Lennear

Lisa Fischer
Lisa Fischer

Tata Vega
Táta Vega

When was the last time you mentioned, or heard mention of, the Afghan war, even on the nightly news? If you are the rare person who gives the war a thought, how much time elapses between those thoughts? Directed and edited by Richard Rowley, Dirty Wars was written by Jeremy Scahill, a national security correspondent for The Nation and author of Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield and Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, and by co-writer David Riker. Scahill narrates the discoveries his investigations unearth about America's ongoing covert military conflicts across the globe. Since 9/11, the so-called "war on terror" has been used to justify clandestine operations against just about anyone we don't like. Scahill begins in Gardez, Afghanistan, with a 2010 February night raid where two pregnant women are among the dead. He soon learns this is not the anomaly we may wish to think: 1,700 night raids take place each week in Afghanistan alone. Scahill's travels take him to Pakistan, Jordan, Algeria, Yemen, Thailand, Indonesia -- the list goes on. "The world has become America’s battlefield, and we can go everywhere," he says. We line the pockets of private corporate contractors with taxpayer dollars and citizens' blood while fueling anti-American hostility across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, inciting terrorism rather than subduing it. We have realized Orwell's vision. Who ever thought it would come to this?

Jeremy Scahill with a Somali warlord


I do not go to zoos. Aside from parakeets and aquarium fish, I object to keeping animals in captivity, and I am beginning to question those two exceptions. Kidnapping wild animals from their kind and habitat to endure unimaginable conditions of isolation and confinement is the equivalent of trafficking in human slavery. There is no difference. Yet, with my self-righteousness and holier-than-thou indignation, I had never trained my imagination on the conditions under which killer whales are held captive -- the passive sin of never having thought about it. Gabriela Cowperwaite's Blackfish is a harrowing corrective. Like Louie Psihoyos's 2008 The Cove, which documents the brutal mass murder of dolphins off the Japanese coast at Taiji, Blackfish peels back the curtain on places like SeaWorld and its ilk.

In 2010, a six-ton bull named Tilikum killed SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau. The narrative was framed to paint Tilikum as a bad seed who had attacked and killed twice before at other venues. But Tilikum is by no means alone among captive orcas who have attacked trainers and marine park visitors. The film contends, and I can find no evidence to refute it, that there is no evidence of a killer whale, despite the name, ever killing one of its kind or attacking a human being in the wild. There is speculation that, having spent most of his lifetime in captivity, abused by dominating cows or held in isolation tanks so small he was immobilized, Tilikum lashed out in the only way he could. Reporting Brancheau's death on CNN, anchor Jane Velez-Mitchell asks the obvious: "If you were in a bathtub for 25 years, don't you think you'd get a little psychotic?"

Among the broader questions Blackfish confronts is speculation about the emotional life of whales. Cowperwaite interviews evolutionary neurobiologist Lori Marino, who explains that orca brains possess a limbic system that has allowed them to evolve highly emotionally complex family and social structures. Leading scientists now speak of cetacean culture, and their understanding would proscribe the traumatizing practice of removing calves from their mothers. If that sounds scientifically objective, dispassion is dashed when we see footage of a mother as her calf is stolen from her, and hear her days of keening screams -- sounds that will ring in your ears long after you leave the theater.

Someone should have taken a page from Lee Daniels and titled this pseudo-documentary Shane Salerno's Salinger. It presents itself as the definitive word on J.D. Salinger, while drawing problematic conclusions about the impact WWII had on his psyche and throwing up dubious -- and salacious -- speculations about his romantic tastes and motivations. That the intensely private writer would be so relentlessly stalked by the persistent Salerno is one of the ironies of Salinger's legacy. In all fairness, as long as they are not put into the service of amateur psychology, some interesting aspects of Salinger's life emerge. Much too much, however, is made of the three damaged young men who used The Catcher in the Rye to defend assassinations (Mark David Chapman's of John Lennon, Robert John Bardo's of Rebecca Schaffer) and an attempted assassination (John Hinckley's of Ronald Reagan). All this and clumsy re-enactments of the tortured writer at his typewriter or in his studio in the woods, and the booming music foreshadowing impending doom and gloom, make Salinger a bombastic mess that is impossible to take seriously. 

Salinger Movie Review

Alex Gibney's The Armstrong Lie examines Lance Armstrong's life of doping on the Tour de France bicycle racing circuit. The documentary excavates Armstrong the boy and finds an indomitable will to win. The subsequent young man is willing to take whatever actions necessary to make winning a reality and a constant. I have never condoned the argument "I thought it was OK because everyone else was doing it," but I have to admit that the film caused, if not a seismic shift in my paradigm, a bit of a fault line if only in the consideration of professional sports. Suffice it to say, I came away unwilling to pass judgment.

On the other hand, though I was at one time involved with Formula I and vintage sports car racing, I have always been a pretentious snob toward Nascar and its fans, but seeing the crowds along the route of the Tour de France forced me to think again. I was appalled, and not just with the stupid costumes and noise makers and whatever else. No, think Nascar with the fans on the track, literally on the track. People grab cyclists, jump in front of them, chase behind them, create tangles amidst the peloton itself. At least race car drivers would have the advantage of engine noise to drown out the roar of the crowd. Not so cyclists. It is insanity!!! I had no idea, and apologize to Nascar fans everywhere.


Discussed here:
Stand Up Guys and The Big Wedding
Unfinished Song
Love Is All You Need
Enough Said
Still Mine
At Any Price

First let me say that I am glad to see older actors getting parts, but... what is the deal with the silly vehicles that are being churned out for them? Since the wonderful performance he turned in for the 2009 Everybody's Fine, De Niro has been cranking out three to five movies a year. He's the biggest offender in a glut of caricatured geriatrics, which has become its own trope as the Fockers, Red / Red 2, et al. developed into franchises.

These movies are gratuitous. We just don't need them, and the formulae have been done to death. This time it's Stand Up Guys (Fisher Stevens), a geriatric crime caper with De Niro, along with Alan Arkin, Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, who have also become staples in old geezer round-ups. At least everyone looked like they had fun making Stand Up Guys, unlike The Big Wedding (Justin Zackham) in which De Niro and his fellow aging cast members, including Diane Keaton and Susan Sarandon (demonstrating that actresses are not immune from the lure of these things), exude discomfort with an impossibly inane script. On Christmas day Grudge Match with De Niro and Sylvester Stallone opens, which the previews have convinced me to miss. And now I'm seeing previews for what looks to be a dreadful Christmas release called Last Vegas, in which Michael Douglas and Kevin Kline join De Niro and Freeman in idiocy.

Hey, guys -- Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Bette Midler, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand....  You're all millionaires, so it's not like you need the money. I have to assume it's because you like to work that you agree to be in this drivel. Can't someone out there write some good -- and complex -- scripts for these talented people?!!?

Stand Up Guys

The Big Wedding

Second, the British do it so much better. Though it is Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut (and it shows), Quartet (2012) is a decidedly British enterprise that is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel redux. This time the retirement community is not a rundown establishment in India, but an old folks home for retired musicians, and this time rather than on the periphery of the cast the regal Maggie Smith takes center stage as the diva who has reluctantly come there to live -- or reign. As with Marigold the risk of devolving into superficiality is averted by a fine cohort of actors (including Michael Gambon) and by a script that allows of some emotional complexity, unlike some of its American cousins. Written by Ronald Harwood from his play.

And sometimes the Brits don't do it better as in Unfinished Song, despite two of the greatest British actors of their generation, Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp, in the leads. Marion is just too sweet and Arthur is just too curmudgeonly, and the choir to which Marion is devoted is full of the usual old fogey suspects. And Marion is dying of cancer... Kleenex anyone?

Third, just because it's from a European director doesn't mean it will automatically be good. Love Is All You Need is another disappointment. Danish director Susanne Bier's mess of a movie stars Pierce Brosnan as a British produce importer whose late wife was Swedish so his business is headquartered in Sweden. As he drives into airport parking -- he's going to his Italian estate where his son is getting married -- a Swedish woman (Trine Dyrholm) backs into him. Turns out she is going to Italy where her daughter is getting married. Get it? In Italy we are introduced to respective son and daughter, though from our first glimpse, son does not seem comfortable with daughter. Indeed we are beaten over the head with the implication that he is more taken with Kenneth, a member of his wedding party, and when that attraction is finally acknowledged with a kiss, my clueless audience gasped and shouted out in disgust, while I muttered, How could you not have known by now? The movie has the subtlety of a bludgeon, amplified by a soundtrack that blurts out almost every rendition of "That's Amore" ever recorded.

Finally, even in this genre it is possible to encounter gems.

Nicole Holofcener wrote and directed Enough Said whose characters are not elderly, just middle aged. Along with her sensitive ensemble of actors she has created something rare: a story that is sweet without being saccharine, touching without sinking to emotional manipulation, and made all the more bittersweet by the late James Gandolfini's deeply felt, gently quiet performance. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is Eva, a massage therapist and divorcee fretting about her daughter's imminent move to college. She meets James Gandolfini's Albert at a party and they sort of hit it off. What Albert doesn't know is that his ex-wife (Catherine Keener) is one of Eva's clients, a fact that Eva inadvertently discovers, then exploits, and so, what begins as a comic twist moves toward the semi-tragic and into questions about the ethical nature of our relationships with each other and the consequences of our actions.
NYT Critics' Pick

Like Sarah Polley's Away from Her and Michael Haneke's Amour, Michael McGowan's Still  Mine takes a sobering look at the realities of dementia and what the reality of true love involves. It is also the true story of Craig Morrison (James Cromwell) who, in trying to build a house that will be safe for his beloved Irene (Geneviève Bujold), encounters all manner of often non-existent building "codes" from a town bureaucracy that throws up one obstruction after another simply because it can.
NYT Critics' Pick

Edward R. Murrow: "Who owns the patent on this vaccine?" Jonas Salk: "Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"
To move far from my subject, I saw Ramin Bahrani's At Any Price earlier in the year, about a hypocritical Iowa farmer (an outstanding performance by Dennis Quaid) who is at once the local sales rep for a genetically modified seed company while using the last year's harvested seed to save himself a small fortune. I include it in contrast to Still Mine in which government regulation wrongly and punitively harasses an individual. Trying to explain the dilemma agribusiness has created to his son's girlfriend, Henry Whipple blames the seed companies: "They've patented life," he says, and in this he is right. Here is a story in which government protects the harmful practices of big business. As is often true of American cinema, the landscape is itself a character in the film, and the story is an allegory of what has happened to the American ethos through the mirror of a generational narrative, from a proud sacrificing grandfather (Red West who also co-stars in Bahrini's Goodbye Solo), to a cutthroat father, to a son who is hoping to escape the farm and live a life of reckless excitement.
NYT Critics' Pick

Still Mine and At Any Price got me to thinking about how misguided the Tea Party screed against regulation is. Regulation that hobbles common sense endeavors, as in Still Mine, is absurd and should be rooted out. But regulation that protects the public against corporate ecological degradation and financial tyranny is a necessary and desirable state of affairs. That they can't tell the difference is potentially tragic.  

In the 2013 section titled "The Heist," I discussed Ken Loach's marvelous little movie The Angels' Share, in which the material object of the quest is merely a vehicle for the quest's larger purpose. Like Loach's characters, Alexander Payne's take to the road. This time, however, the quest is set up as futile. Nevertheless, the journey will matter in Nebraska. Bruce Dern gives an remarkable performance as Woody, a taciturn old man who long ago tuned the world out, having given up on any meaningful place for himself in it. His son David knows there is no million dollar prize waiting for his father to claim. Still, he agrees to drive him from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska.

Like At Any Price, Nebraska takes a slice of life from a heartland community's decline and dysfunction in the wake of corporate farming. Payne paints a bleak picture of his native Nebraska, and the people who populate it, American grotesques in the tradition of the characters with whom Sherwood Anderson populated Winesburg, Ohio. Will Forte as David does a wonderful job of communicating a range of emotion, while, with the exception of one mild outburst, biting his proverbial tongue. David seizes the opportunity of the journey to come to terms with Woody's life and impending death, and Nebraska asks us to come to terms with the death of an American dream that was really just a myth in the first place.
NYT Critics' Pick

December 9, 2013


Why has a steadily increasing interest in the Beats emerged over the past four years? They've never entirely gone away, but I do not see young people championing their literature or emulating their rebellion. Grown children who still live with their parents do not seem true heirs to the Beats.

If anything, the Beats have become caricatures in some respects, especially William S. Burroughs who, in all fairness, created his own, which had the effect of making him a cult figure. Yet in so doing he penetrated the popular culture more pervasively than the rest. David Cronenberg adapted Naked Lunch in 1991, a number of Burroughs's short stories have made it to film, he has been featured in character roles and cameo appearances in a number of movies, and IMDb lists no less than 37 appearances on screen as "Self." In 2002, Gary Walkow covered the life of Burroughs and his wife Joan Vollmer in Beat, and in 2010, Independent Lens did a documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within. An earlier documentary by Lars Movin and Steen Møller Rasmussen, Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs on the Road, was released in 2007, and was awarded the Danish Film Institute's Roos Award.

In 1986, Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams explored Jack Kerouac's life in their documentary What Happened to Kerouac? but there hasn't been much about Kerouac, or Allen Ginsberg, by contrast. Until...

In 2010, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's kinetic, exuberant, wonderful (with the exception of the misplaced animation) Howl blew through in a single week. Toward the close of 2012, Walter Salles brought Kerouac's On the Road to the screen. Michael Polish's Big Sur, adapted from Kerouac's novel, was released in October but has not met with the media blitz the biographical Kill Your Darlings has received. Stephen Holden gives Big Sur a glowing review, and it's a NYT Critics' Pick, but I have heard nary a peep about it at middle America's cineplex. I contend that Hollywood's interest in the Kill Your Darlings true story stems not so much from the literary circle it involves as from the sensational nature of the episode, and Hollywood likes sensationalism. Now I come to find out that Steve Buscemi is directing Queer, a film based on Burroughs's first two novels, Junkie and Queer.

Last year also saw the first production of Jack Kerouac's play The Beat Generation at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the writer's hometown. The AP approached Todd Tietchen, an assistant English professor there, who said the renewed interest in Kerouac and the Beats comes because they "asked 'tough questions' about post-war society, consumerism and securing the American Dream through mortgages and auto payments.... '[Y]oung people now, as they deal with a challenging job market, are asking those questions.'" Hmmm... That may be a reason U Mass Lowell decided to stage the play, but it does not suggest a renewed interest in Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al. The Orlando Sentinel similarly proclaims that Salles's film "renews interest in Jack Kerouac." Young people are rightly distressed about the dearth of decent jobs, but that's not leading them to the Beats in droves, and it speaks to nothing literary.

Maybe I don't know enough young people to judge the zeitgeist, but I am not seeing teens and twenty-somethings lolling around Starbucks reading Howl or On the Road or Naked Lunch. Rather, I believe the interest resides in the resonance this constellation of individuals had then and has now for the LGBT community. If so, it is the Beat Generation's non-conformity, their radical sexuality and rejection of received standards, not the literary experimentation and innovation, that this generation of those actively seeking gay civil rights embraces.

In the Stonewall era of 1969 Greenwich Village, there were still those who understood the Beats from the point of view of social and literary rebellion. On June 28, the key figures -- Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs -- were living and contemporaneous to the scene, though Kerouac would die a mere four months later. Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney write in Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America," that

"like the holders of a secret, [the homosexual community] had an advantage which was a disadvantage, too, and which was true of no other minority group in the United States. They were invisible. Unlike African Americans, women, Native Americans, Jews, the Irish, Italians, Asians, Hispanics, or any other cultural group which struggled for respect and equal rights, homosexuals had no physical or cultural markings, no language or dialect which could identify them to each other, or to anyone else ... But [the night of the Stonewall uprising], for the first time, the usual acquiescence turned into violent resistance...."

A familiarity with the Beats' writing was one way to make yourself known in '50s and '60s America. Even into the 1970s, high school and college students treasured tattered copies of On the Road. Today, a little more than a decade and a half after Ginsberg's and Burroughs's deaths, I would venture that simply knowing who they were is enough. It also seems to be enough to have driven a number of film makers to plumb this distinctive circle of renegades, though where Epstein and Friedman's Howl succeeds in getting at the words, On the Road and Kill Your Darlings fail.


As is true of Australian film as well, the landscape participates as a dominant character in the American mythology: from the Hudson River School and the Luminists to Albert Bierstadt's paintings of the Western Expansion to Ansel Adams's photographs; from Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Fenimore Cooper, Thoreau, Willa Cather and William Faulkner to Cormac McCarthy and Louise Erdrich; from John Ford to Sam Peckinpah; from The Lone Ranger to Breaking Bad to the oeuvre of Ken Burns. In 1957, Jack Kerouac's On the Road codified the road genre, and Walter Salles's film gives ample shrift to the landscape. José Rivera's adaptation of the novel is reverant, but Kerouac's incantatory prose can't help but lose something in the translation from page to screen, and the reckless, rebellious, transcendence seekers don't quite make it into the theater.

William Faulkner is attributed with saying, "In writing, you must kill all your darlings." However, Faulkner is paraphrasing Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the renowned British critic, scholar and educational reformer who published under the pen name Q. In a series of lectures published in 1916 as On the Art of Writing, in the final chapter "On Style" in an entry on "What Style Is Not," Quiller-Couch instructs, "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings." Get rid of those bits of writing you are most in love with because they are quite probably not at all as good as you believe. In all likelihood they are personal to you alone and will not translate to the reader. In John Krokidas's Kill Your Darlings, Professor Stevens (John Cullum) -- an amalgam of Lionel Trilling and Meyer Schapiro -- gives his students this same advice.

But Kill Your Darlings is only marginally about the genesis of a literary revolution. Rather, what Quiller-Couch and Faulkner and Professor Stevens intend as a metaphor is literalized when the preyed upon Lucien Carr (in an exceptional performance from Dane LaHaan) turns on his sexual predator, the professor David Kammerer (Michael Hall).

Daniel Radcliffe is an excellent young Ginsberg, and though I do not agree with A.O. Scott that Ben Foster and Jack Houston as Burroughs and Kerouac "are content with celebrity impersonation," I do believe that he provides a succinct critique of the film: "The freedom to abandon rhyme and polite diction becomes the vehicle and symbol for other kinds of freedom. Lucien’s mantra, 'First thought best thought' (which is the opposite of the writerly wisdom evoked in the film’s title), is an argument against repression in all its forms, even though Lucien himself cannot quite live by it."
NYT Critics' Pick