From the Archive — Marie Antoinette

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This was originally written for and posted at my former online home. 

There was a lot of suspicious murmuring when the teaser trailer for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette hit. It looked like a period piece, but what was that New Order song doing there? Coppola was announcing that she was going to make a period piece, but she was going to make it her way. If that meant incorporating early 1980s pop songs, so be it. After all, it’s not necessarily more anachronistic that incorporating late 90’s art pop into a film set in the mid 1970’s, or automatically adding an orchestral score to any movie set in any time, for that matter. And if that proved to be the first indicator of a pervasive personal stamp on her film, all the better. If only.

The shortcomings of Coppola’s film are handily illustrated in the lead performance by Kirsten Dunst. Unlike some, I have no immediate problem with Dunst in the role. In fact, if the only Oscar ballot sent in annually was from me, she’d have two nominations by now. In this film, Dunst is quite good in the early going, when the queen-to-be she is portraying is surveying the world she has been ushered into with a childlike hesitancy and confusion. As the history progresses and the role requires greater depth and commitment, Dunst has nothing to give. She’s lost, reciting lines rather than conveying a life. It may not be her fault, as it seems like Coppola herself loses interest when her privileged girl becomes a woman and a ruler. The verve and observation of the earlier scenes slips away and a hopelessly familiar period drama fills the screen.

Coppola does use her pop songs — Gang of Four, The Cure and Adam Ant are among those who’ve had their back catalog raided — but does sparingly. The only stretch in which they feel like an integral part of the film is during a relatively brief wallow in Marie Antoinette’s legendary decadence. Sometimes it truly enriches the film, giving it a rules-free post-modern kick as in the scene in which the dancers at an 18th century French ball spin around as “Hong Kong Garden” from Siouxsie and the Banshees fills the soundtrack, the gothic indulgence and romantic flourishes of the music unexpectedly serving as perfect accompaniment. Other times Coppola undermines her own boldness with woefully literal usage of the songs. The last thing any film needs is shots of stockpiled sweets set to the pounding rhythms of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.”

There is a certain wit that flashes in Coppola’s construction, especially as she walks us through the smothering attention Marie Antoinette receives. It’s more convincing when Coppola remains committed to the time and place of the film, refraining from drawing modern parallels such as the unfortunate moment when the notorious comment “Let them eat cake,” is used to set up a clumsy indictment of tabloid culture. Like a lot of period pieces, this film allows ample opportunity to get visually drunk on the art design (we’re convinced of the indulgent nature of this monarchy by the densely designed wallpaper alone) and Coppola as well-served by cinematographer Lance Acord here as she was with Lost in Translation. It’s always pretty to look at, even when Coppola fails to make it interesting to think about.

The film is based on Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: A Journey, but the journey is precisely what’s missing from Coppola’s film. We get the signposts, but little else of this woman’s life experience. There’s no resonance, just those pop songs echoing fruitlessly in our heads.

From the Archive — Miller’s Crossing

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There were few actors who could take full command of a film like Albert Finney. Immediately intimidating, Finney was a bull among fawns. But he was also nimble, cunning, authentic, and playful. He didn’t work all that often, yet racked up accolades that he gladly rejected, refusing to be knighted and steadfastly bypassing the Academy Awards, though he was nominated five times. I didn’t review many of Finney’s films over the years (he was far more prolific as an actor before I started trying to express my movie affection in words), but I did write this for the old radio show. This early Coen brothers effort was released within our first few weeks on the air. I believe it represents the first time I tried to pen a full-on rave.

With only two prior films to their credit, Joel and Ethan Coen have already established quite a reputation. Both their first film, Blood Simple, and their follow-up, Raising Arizona, gained them significant critical acclaim. With their latest, Miller’s Crossing, that reputation should only grow, and deservedly so.

In Miller’s Crossing, Irish actor Gabriel Byrne plays Tom, the right hand man to mob boss Leo, played by Albert Finney. As the film progresses, Leo gets into a turf war with Johnny Caspar, played by Jon Polito, which is sparked largely by Caspar’s desire to see a small-time hood named Bernie killed. As the turf war develops, Tom finds himself thrown out of Leo’s organization only to ally himself with Johnny Caspar. We see the conflict and the manipulations through the eyes of Tom as he deals with his involvement with Leo’s moll, the repercussions of the turf war, a gambling debt he must pay off, and, in one of the film’s most effective scenes, carrying out Caspar’s orders to kill Bernie.

At the center of the film, Byrne plays Tom perfectly. Tom is cool as ice and hard as nails. When a thug asks him about a fat lip he’s sporting, Tom responds, “It’s an old war wound. It acts up around morons.” The supporting case is uniformly excellent, particularly J.E. Freeman as the Dane, one of Caspar’s tough guys, John Turturro as Bernie, and Polito as Caspar.

The script by the Coen brothers is outstanding. The plot has an amazing amount of detail, and the dialogue is smart and terrific. Joel Coen handles the directing chores and has turned in a job equal to the screenplay. Each scene is so well-crafted that the film is always a true pleasure to look at. At a time when mob and gangster pictures are coming out at an incredible rate, Joel and Ethan Coen can be very proud. They’ve created one of the standouts.

4 stars, on the 4 star scale.

From the Archive — Godzilla

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As hype builds for the forthcoming release of the new big screen blockbuster Godzilla: King of the Monsters (complete with intense scrutiny of every fragment of available information), I will give over a few digital column inches to sharing anew a pile-up of words I previously offered about my favorite incarnation of the character in question. This was originally published at my former online home, as part of the “Flashback Fridays” series.

1977: The first issue of Godzilla from Marvel Comics is released

When I started the recurring series entitled “My Misspent Youth,” the intent was to wax nostalgic about comic books I read as a kid. The word “misspent” also invokes the titles I should have read, the four-color wonders I bypassed for whatever reason. I never read an issue of Godzilla when it was available for ready purchase on spinner racks across America. I was definitely leaning towards more childish fare at the time, but even when I started devoting myself to the superheroic product of the House of Ideas full time, I generally avoided the titles built around licensed products, whether derived from moviesTV shows, or toys. These weren’t canon, you see. They could be ignored so precious silver coins were directed to more critical parts of major Marvel universe storyline.

They were an important part of the major Marvel business plan, however. Marvel aggressively sought licensed properties during this time, and some accounts claim that the Star Wars series they published kept the company afloat all by itself. One month after the first issue of Star Wars hit the stands, Marvel released their version of the adventures of the Toho Company‘s titanic strange beast, Godzilla.

As opposed to many other licensed titles, Godzilla took place within the established Marvel continuity. He arrived on American shores by bursting out of a bay in Alaska, and spent much of the series romping his way across the U.S. always with a battalion of S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives in pursuit. Led by former Howling Commando Dum Dum Dugan, the elite fighting force was continually thwarted by the towering reptile, although, to be fair, their efforts were unfairly complicated by a little kid who kept climbing into a giant robot and inserting himself into the fray. Before the series was up, Godzilla also tangled with the Avengers and, most memorably for me, the Fantastic Four.

This is exactly the sort of wild ride I miss in comics. This was right in the heart of the blissed out era of comics when there were few things hotter than a series starring an ill-tempered, stogie-chomping waterfowl trapped in a world he never made. Every nutty idea was fair game, and it was all presented with a genuine desire to entertain rather than the veneer of irony often slathered on similar material nowadays. Godzilla could crash through Las Vegas, get hurled into space, or get shrunk down so a sewer rat becomes a formidable adversary, and it was all just part of the show. It’s unabashed, grandly giddy fun built on rules-free flights of imagination. In other words, exactly what I want from comics.

From the Archive — Brokeback Mountain

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A few days after the annual Oscar nominations announcement is still a time of bliss, when justice is possible. No matter how many personal favorites have been overlooked, there inevitably remain contenders imbued with uncommon cinematic beauty. Maybe those creative triumphs can win and decades of the Academy too often defaulting to the tired, superficially noble option will no longer be a reliable forecaster. Anyway, I wrote this review upon the original release of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. It appeared at my former online home.

In the rare instance that you see the name of screenwriter used prominently in the promotion of a film, you know the studio is going for something specific. In the case of Brokeback Mountain touting the contributions of Larry McMurtry is likely meant to connect the film to his various acclaimed westerns. But this is not the McMurtry of Lonesome Dove, this is the McMurtry of The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment. He has an uncanny ability to fill out characters and draw us close to them by showing us the scattered pieces of their lives. He doesn’t tie everything together, but gives us the means to do it ourselves. The film doesn’t stop to tell us about these characters with momentum clogging exposition, and yet, by the end, we know them.

The other author connected to this film is Annie Proulx, who wrote the short story on which it is based, has made it clear that the shorthand description of this film as “the gay cowboy movie” is wholly inaccurate. These characters are not cowboys, she has said, but are instead “two inarticulate, confused Wyoming ranch kids.” It’s an important distinction and one that cuts to the reason the film is so effective. The film is not about cowboys, but rather about two young men who have bought into the cowboy myth, and are trying to forge their personal identities on the basis of that rugged persona.

Jake Gyllenhaal initially seems a little off as Jack Twist, one of a pair of men earning their summer wages by looking after a flock of sheep on the the titular geographic landmark. He is too soft, too eager. He doesn’t match our perception of a man finding his future on the frontier as effectively as his cohort Ennis Del Mar, played with a rugged mumble by Heath Ledger. That mild disconnect between actor and role is actually perfect, as the character he portrays is role-playing himself. These two men are fighting to find themselves, define themselves. In the process they find one another, romantically, sexually and deeply. It is that connection that truly sets them on the path to self-discovery.

For all the hand-wringing over the supposed sensational elements of the film, Brokeback is not a treatise or a manifesto, a modern version of a Hollywood message movie. It is a small, sad story beautifully told. It may not be a booming box office success when it starts to book theaters outside of the major cities, but I think that will be due as much to the slow, considered pace of the film as anything else. Director Ang Lee presents his story matter-of-factly, resolutely refusing to punctuate or underline individual moments. He has supreme confidence in his material and his actors to create the emotional resonance of the piece. Lee captures it and emerges with a film that is breathtaking in its honestly stated heartache.

From the Archive — FernGully: The Last Rainforest

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The brevity of this review reflects its placement as part of general round-up of new releases I wrote for The Pointer, the student newspaper of the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. It’s highly questionable as to whether or not college students in the early nineteen-nineties were looking to the media created by their peers to determine whether or not to carve out some of their beer budget to buy tickets for animated features, but I had column inches to fill. 

Vivid and good-natured, this animated feature employs pixies in an Australian rainforest to make valid points about the way man is destroying the environment. The magical residents of FernGully get help from a shrunken human named Zak and a crazed bat who’s an escapee from a testing laboratory (voiced with admirable energy by Robin Williams) in their battle against the impending doom of a wildlife-menacing machine controlled by a toxic villain.

Though the issues addressed are important, the film is surprisingly lacking in vigor and focuses on dull, lifeless characters. No amount of pristine animated can make up for faults like those.

From the Archive — All in the Family

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Developed for U.S. television by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, All in the Family debuted on CBS on this date in 1971. I wrote this a few years ago, as part of the Flashback Fridays feature that ran for a time at my former online home. Except for the unfortunate citation of a current resident of State Correctional Institution – Phoenix, I think this all holds up. In the grimness of current presidential politics, reflections on the effect of televised bigotry are perhaps even more pertinent now.   

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been watching All in the Family when I was a little kid. But by the time I was old enough to be paying attention, it was already an institution.

Norman Lear had been kicking around Hollywood for awhile when he bought the American remake rights to a BBC sitcom called Till Death Us Do Part. Lear took a couple of unsuccessful swings at reworking the material before he discovered the proper formula, recasting the pivotal supporting roles, and, in a small but important detail, changing the last name of his bigoted protagonist from Justice to Bunker. He went from a word that calls to mind egalitarianism and honor to one with connotations of concrete obstinacy. Irony was shed in favor of truer representation, and it just felt right, in the way of the strongest fictional names.

The irony was already plentiful, anyway. Archie Bunker, the blue-collar worker who casually employed every conceivable ethnic slur in his agitated discourse against the supposed sullying of America by the liberal elite, was the lead character in the show, ostensibly the hero. And yet his hateful rhetoric was about as far removed from the viewpoints of Lear as could be. Similarly, Carroll O’Connor couldn’t have been more different from the role that would define the remainder of his career. The show intended to generate its comedy from the satire of the character, demonstrating how his prejudice derived from ignorance and foolishness, but without making him a heartless monster. He was lovable in his way, weirdly charming, and, the show being a comedy, often quite funny. Archie’s lefty son-in-law may have been voicing the same opinions that Lear himself expressed when he was given a podium, a microphone, and an attentive audience, but that didn’t mean the show’s creators intended upon giving that character, or any character, a mere straw man to bat down. The construction of the show was even-handed enough that the first episode was preceded by a warning that explained to viewers the intent of illustrating the absurdity of Archie’s mindset.

So why was it probably a mistake that this show was a staple of my childhood years? Because I undoubtedly didn’t understand all that when I was a little kid. I just saw Archie say terrible things and heard the live studio audience laugh. There was an intricacy to the show that eluded me at the time, that I couldn’t have been expected to know when my age was in the single digits. Still, there I sat, in front of the console TV set the size of a washing machine, and giggled away. I was especially amused when the toilet audibly flushed. It was only much, much later when I watched it that I understood and appreciated the real goals of the show, the daring of its execution.

I’m not saying I was scarred by this, or that I operate today with any confusion about whether or not “Polack” is a nice word. But I am a little curious about how the series was really viewed by all those people who made it the number one rated show for five years running. If a significant number of right-wingers think The Colbert Report is real, then surely there may have been a unsettling percentage of the twenty million people who tuned into All in the Family each week to admire Archie’s straight-talkin’ ways. It’s easy to get paranoid and see the program as a sitcom version of one of Howard W. Campbell, Jr.’s radio essays in Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, the caustic message more impactful than the code it hides.

When Bill Cosby presided over a family sitcom that has its own impressive run atop the Nielsen charts, he notably complained that Archie Bunker never apologized for any of the things he said. Even if he occasionally faced his comeuppance, he never truly had an epiphany about the wrong-headed nature of his views. Though it would have been a betrayal of the artistic vision of the series, potentially undoing its bold honestly with a single line of dialogue, I do see Cosby’s point. I can watch All in the Family now and find it funny, occasionally bordering on brilliant. But when I think of the much younger version of myself watching it, trying to puzzle out its purpose, the laughs sometimes catch in my throat.

From the Archive — Hard Candy

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Our household is in the usual movie-viewing mad scramble that happens around the end of the year, striving to catch up with all of the titles we missed that could be a factor at the Academy Awards and in our personal “best of” lists. But we still have time (and, truth be told, a sense of obligation) to engage with the pop culture sparkler of the moment, which meant dutifully manipulating a streaming service’s slickly constructed interface to compel a fictional character to tug on his earlobe (or at least fretfully resist that particular command). So with a hit tip to the flawed feat Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and its director, David Slade, I’ll today unearth my review of the Hard Candy. It was Slade’s first feature, which might not have aged into the #MeToo era particularly well because of some of the flaws identified below. In truth, it’s possible its basic premise reverberates me strongly these days. What I am certain of is that it established — one year ahead of Juno — that Ellen Page has wizardly acting skills when provided with material that’s anywhere near worthy of her.

Hard Candy begins with an online conversation between a professional photographer in his thirties and a fourteen-year-old girl. They flirt, joke, and agree to meet at a local coffee shop. That feeling of dread you have is well-founded.

That’s all I’ll reveal about the plot, despite the fact the the progression of the story has been given away in most reviews and even the film’s trailer offers some clear indicators of otherwise unexpected turns. There’s a clear intent in the film’s construction to maximize the impact of certain revelations, not in the manner of those filmmakers that have made yelling “gotcha” their stock in trade, but instead to emphasize the danger of truths withheld. These characters reveal themselves to each other slowly, reluctantly, painfully, and we in the audience take the journey with them, ready or not.

The film is largely a duet, an exercise in audacious acting performed in tandem. In that regard, it’s a smashing success. The photographer is played by Patrick Wilson, who the numerous musical devotees who peruse this sliver of the Web may know from a slightly more foppish role. Wilson’s task here is a combination of reaction and endurance. He digs deep and claws his way out, but there are built-in limits to the breadth he can bring to his character. For the broader range, there’s Ellen Page as the younger of the two principals. The bulk of the film rests on her tiny shoulders, and she carries it with a tenacious creativity that seems to announce the emergence of a ferocious talent. It will be very strange indeed to see her in her next role, which is very different and, presumably, far less demanding.

The film itself burns with a breathless edginess. It doesn’t just push buttons, it smashes its fist right into the control panel. First-time feature director David Slade holds it all together expertly, especially since the screenplay, credited to Brian Nelson, grows more and more dependent on familiar thriller contrivances as it goes on. Of particular cause for complaint is that word-processed crutch of a character blessed with implausible foresight in lining up the proverbial dominoes that will tumble towards the denouement.

Finally, it should be noted that it’s a bit of a disappointment that the film itself finally seemingly has so little to say about the provocative situation that sets the story in motion. There are moments, especially early on, when some pointed observations about children pretending to be sophisticated, sexual beings and the adults that will aggressively encourage and exploit that behavior. When the proverbial noose tightens and the film starts to go for antagonized jumps rather than woozy worries, it still provokes a palpable reaction, but some of the impact is lost.