Monday, October 24, 2016

Even more big movies

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2004)

Shattered Glass

Stephen Glass was a short-lived hotshot journalist at the inside-Washington New Republic magazine, whose career, uh, shattered when he turned out to be a serial fantasist who partly or entirely fabricated the majority of his articles. In Billy Ray’s film, Hayden Christensen plays Glass as a kind of quasi-Woody Allen character – neurotic and genuflecting and excessively eager to please – who bamboozled the more stolid people around him through something very similar to the power of dreams, the feel-good thematic staple of any number of films. In this sense, Glass’ story seems to say something about the fragility and gullibility of American identity.

On the other hand, it’s basically a story about a bunch of self-absorbed insiders who couldn’t see what was in front of them (the magazine’s vaunted fact-checking procedures failed spectacularly here). In many ways, Shattered Glass seems like a dainty fantasy. Despite my weekly presence in this publication, I have no inside knowledge of how magazines work (I just type it out at home and email it in), but it’s hard to believe that the New Republic was as airless a bubble as it appears here. Glass never seems to leave the office, and yet comes up with one amazing piece of on-the-spot reportage after another. The film’s handwringing about journalistic integrity, the hallowed status of the press etc. seems distinctly overdone (although it’s a bit ambiguous how much director Ray is aware of this, and is deliberately skirting parody). It’s an entertaining, facile film, best taken as a dreamy, abstract fantasy than as a serious exploration of anything.

The Last Samurai

Edward Zwick’s epic is handsome and entertaining, and very conventional. Tom Cruise plays an American soldier in the late 1800s who goes to Japan on a highly paid commission to train the Emperor’s army against samurai rebels; when he gets taken prisoner by the samurai leader, he slowly switches allegiance. The premise, of course, is that Japan’s traditional values (vaguely articulated here as some ethereal combination of fortitude and spirituality) are better embodied by the outcasts than by the corrupt establishment.

The film has been frequently compared to Dances with Wolves, and I also found myself thinking of Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom (a film that for me represents an almost unequaled gulf between potential and achievement). This is yet another saga in which any serious engagement with the historical issues is shoved to the side by the travails of a liberal WASP protagonist. If anything, the paradigm is even more insulting here than usual – Cruise swiftly ascends to the very centre of samurai culture, and ultimately stands as the last remaining ambassador for its values. It’s particularly unconvincing since Cruise brings no real shape to the part. In something like Magnolia he’s excellent as the embodiment of a contemporary angst, but the trade-off (compared to the likes of Hanks and Crowe and Costner) is that he doesn’t fit comfortably into alien settings.

The film won best director in the season’s first movie awards (the National Board of Review), which was categorically undeserved – the film’s general superficiality must be laid directly at Zwick’s door. I seem to remember his earlier film on a parallel theme, Glory, was quite a bit more sophisticated than this, but I could certainly be misremembering it. After that film, Zwick created TV’s thirtysomething, traces of which are clearly visible here. For example, in addition to becoming a samurai hero, the resolution of Cruise’s mid-life crisis depends on finding the right woman, after she gets over her own emotional baggage. Gimme a break, as the samurai used to say.

The Missing

The Missing shares many of The Last Samurai’s faults, and unfortunately lacks its modest virtues. Ron Howard’s first film since winning an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind shows clear signs of wanting to grow – it flirts with sex and violence in a way that’s unusual for Howard. I hate to traffic in clich├ęs, but I can’t think here how to avoid it, so here goes – Howard really never has seemed to entirely outgrow his Opie phase. The guy’s just so plain nice, and apparently straightforward. A Beautiful Mind made a complex man simple. His best film, Apollo 13, came when his elevation of decent qualities found its most thrilling medium.

In The Missing, a Western, Cate Blanchett plays a single mother whose oldest girl gets kidnapped by a band of marauding Indians. Her estranged father Tommy Lee Jones, who abandoned the family years ago and “went native,” has returned to seek reconciliation; she initially spurns him, but then enlists his help to track the missing girl. Their journey takes them through numerous varied encounters and settings, all of which, as presented here, feel much the same. The head of the marauders is a shaman who exercises strange powers, opening up a spiritual dimension that sits uneasily with the rest of the film.

The Missing exhibits some attempt to engage with the period’s rough edges and privations, but let me put it this way: Howard’s no Sam Peckinpah. Also, vis a vis the film’s similarities with The Searchers, he’s no John Ford. More distressingly perhaps, as a maker of Westerns he ranks a fair bit behind Kevin Costner, whose Open Range by comparison seems like a model of evocation and visual flair. The thing is – it really seems like Costner wanted to make a Western. The Missing gives off the impression of an academic exercise – part evocation, part revisionism, part genre bending, but all constrained by Howard’s apparently congenital good taste.

One from the Heart

It was great that Francis Coppola’s 1981 film One from the Heart played recently for a week at the Carlton. I wish we had more old movies mingled with the new releases; it’d be kind of like living in France. Shot entirely on sound stages, this evocation of a magical Las Vegas was a huge flop on release, and it’s fair to say Coppola has never been the same since. It’d be pleasing to say then that the film is an undervalued masterpiece, but sadly it’s not so.

It seems intended to function as some kind of Oz-like opening of the inner spirit, with Teri Garr and Frederic Forrest as a bickering blue-collar couple who go their separate ways one night and momentarily lose themselves in the city’s neon whirl, before finding their way back to each other. For a musical, it’s full of unprepossessing characters; it’s frequently garish to look at and the choreography is a bit of a mess. All of this gives it an occasionally endearing quotidian quality, but your benevolence toward it always feels suspect. Still, if the Carlton does more of this kind of revival, I promise to attend at least 75% of the time.

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