Friday, October 30, 2009

Boomerang! (1947, Kazan)

A taut police-procedural thriller in the G-Men (1935) tradition, Elia Kazan’s Boomerang! (1947) is a complex and compelling portrayal of the ways politics and violence interrelated in post-War America. Made in the year of the first series of HUAC hearings, it’s a conflicted movie – Dana Andrews’ state attorney is first willing to join the mass hysteria and convict a man charged with murdering a local preacher: even though evidence is dubious and the incriminating statement was clearly induced by psychological torture. Andrews plays an ultimately benign authority figure, willing to commit to a just cause as soon as he recognizes it as such. But what’s one left with, is the overwhelming sense of corruption running deep in American power structures – as embodied by Lee J. Cobb’s stubborn and spiteful mug, as he confesses (falsely, but honestly to his mind) that the accused confessed guilt “of his own will without any violence”.

The movie doesn’t have the visual texture or moral complexity of On the Waterfront (1953) and it isn’t as franticly paced as Panic in the Street (1950), but I appreciate Kazan’s ways of stepping back from the conflicted crowd of characters, so that his movie truly becomes an austere snapshot of a society at large.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Just Write (1997, Gallerani)

A dud in every other way, Andrew Gallerani’s Just Write (1997) at least succeeds in getting together two very alert performers: Sherilyn Fenn and Jeremy Piven. The latter, in his pre-Ari Gold days, leaves you smiling – mainly because he proves incapable of being blank. Even in scenes that require of him to play “tired” or ”resigned”, he seems eager for a next chance to flaunt his incredible energy. That corresponds just fine with Fenn’s receptiveness (and her character’s awe at having this guy thrown at her by fate). Fenn was wonderful as the confused bisexual woman in Yurek Bogayewicz’s unjustly-forgotten Three of Hearts (1993), and here she reprises her earlier role in a way.

It’s a shame that the screenplay takes the path of a rather crass satire on Hollywood crowd’s emptiness (again: pre-Entourage, but with more than four mentions of Sunset Blvd. [1950] in the dialogue). What you’re left with is a joy of the few moments when Fenn and Piven meet for the first time: his puppy-like enthusiasm at meeting a Hollywood star and her relief at speaking to someone she shares a language with. Apart from that scene, the movie is inept; it's failure symbolized by Wallace Shawn’s mechanical turn as a big-shot literary agent.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Empire of the Sun (1987, Spielberg)

Steven Spielberg’s cinema of consolation has an unusual way of dodging all my usual defenses, which is just another way of saying that I’d buy more schmaltz from Spielberg than from any other director. But in case of his Empire of the Sun (1987) I remained more resistant than usual. The story of Jim (Christian Bale), a British boy who gets separated from his parents in WW2 Shanghai, had some very strong points, but I think Spielberg was trying too hard to avoid hopelessness the material ultimately provokes. The result is very strange: a downhill slide towards moral numbness caused by war, played out like a boy’s adventure tale (Jim’s father wears Captain Hook’s outfit at one point: a prelude to a movie that will come 4 years after).

What I consider Spielberg’s biggest talent, and what comes off well even in this movie, is his ability to desexualize child's imagination to the point of reaching a moral clarity that belongs purely to the mythical. Puerility is Spielberg’s big theme, yes, but it’s never contaminated by sexual confusion. When Jim sings a song late in the movie, his falsetto isn’t broken by any signs of mutation – even though he matured in every other way in the course of the action.

It’s not an accident that Spielberg sanitized so much of Bob Zemeckis’ and Bob Gale’s raunchiness when he was making 1941 (1979). What’s wonderful about him, though, is that his shrinking from sex doesn’t feel like bailing out on adulthood as such – it’s not a neurotic denial. His drive towards what’s pure is genuine and has a religious dimension to it that I deeply revere, even though it takes him far away from any territory one would label as realistic.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Majestic (2001, Darabont)

Leisurely paced and thinly-plotted does not necessarily make for a deadly combo, granted that the movie in question is relaxed and entertaining at the same time (see Resnais’ Smoking/No Smoking [1993] for that). Unfortunately, Frank Darabont’s The Majestic (2001) is drunk on its own dream of moral gravitas: a mere concept that is never realized.

Sentimentalizing the innocence of a wrongly accused young man was only a part of The Shawshank Redemption (1994) appeal – here, as in Darabont’s The Green Mile (1999), it takes over the whole picture. The thing that made Shawshank… so satisfying for this viewer, was that its central character denied easy access – there was something cryptic about Tim Robins’ performance, and as an audience we kept guessing at his Andy Dufresne’s true nature (which made us automatic allies with Morgan Freeman’s character, who was doing the same thing all along). In The Majestic, Peter Appleton (Jim Carrey) is fully laid out as a character in the first five minutes of the movie – we know he’s an ambitious writer of pulp scripts and that he got blacklisted in spite of never having been a Communist. There’s precious little that would go beyond that in the following 140 minutes or so, even though a large section of the film is devoted to Peter’s assuming someone else’s identity in the wake of his memory loss. Peter is a blank noble space, with no mystery to him, and no real appeal.

Bob Balaban’s unfunny turn as a buggy-eyed, fuddy duddy HUAC clerk steers the movie – if only for a brief moment – into the territory of a historical parody, much in the vein of Spielberg’s 1941 (1979). In fact, I’d much rather see a deranged, over-the-top take on the Red Scare in Hollywood, than Darabont’s sanctimonious and sanitized fairy tale. This is yet another movie that – very much like Good Night, and Good Luck. (2006) – portrays 1950s anti-Communism as completely unfounded, which is historically incorrect. What anti-Communism was in those years, was exaggerated: a knee-jerk, neurotic reaction to a real and manageable threat that was truly at work in the USA. I would very much like to watch a movie that would encompass the era in all its tragic complexity – we could really use more works like Robert De Niro’s brilliant The Good Shepherd (2007).