Friday, December 12, 2014

Brothers

So far, most films about the current war in the Middle East have not fared well at the box office with efforts like Home of the Brave (2006), In the Valley of Elah (2007) and Stop-Loss (2008) getting limited distribution or underperforming at the box office (or both), often garnering little interest with mainstream audiences. People don't want to be reminded of the problems we face over there or the effects of it here at home when our soldiers return. To counter this attitude with his film Brothers (2009), director Jim Sheridan cannily cast marquee names like Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal in an attempt to appeal to a mainstream audience. A remake of Susanna Bier's 2004 Danish film Brodre, Brothers performed modestly well at the box office, but was largely unseen and remains an absorbing look at just not what soldiers go through, but how their loved ones deal with them once they get home. It also features powerful performances from the three aforementioned lead actors.

Captain Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is a United States Marine heading back to Afghanistan for another tour of duty. He’s a loving family man with a beautiful wife named Grace (Natalie Portman) and two adorable daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare). Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman are instantly believable as a married couple that clearly loves each other. There is a familiarity that couples have and even though they don’t have much screen-time to convey it before Sam ships off, they pull it off in the way their characters look and interact with each other. In contrast, his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) has just been released from prison after serving time for armed robbery. He’s the black sheep of the family and Grace doesn’t think too highly of her husband’s brother, but is nice to him in person. While Sam and Tommy get along fine there is tangible tension between their father (Sam Shepard) and latter. This is evident in an uncomfortable family dinner where their father makes it known that he sees Sam as a hero for serving his country and Tommy as a disappointment, causing the latter to make a scene. You can cut the tension with a knife during this scene until Tommy’s controlled outburst brings long simmering resentments to the surface.

While on a mission over hostile territory, Sam’s helicopter is shot down and he’s presumed dead. Sheridan makes the right choice when depicting the standard scene of the wife being told that her husband has been killed by showing Grace coming to the door and breaking down once she sees the military officers. No words need to be said and the scene ends there because Portman’s reaction says enough. Instead, Sheridan shows Grace’s full-blown emotional breakdown when Tommy stops by later that night to return Sam’s truck. Rather than console her, he erupts in anger and storms off. It’s an odd reaction, but in character as Tommy is clearly someone with a lot rage inside of him.


Tommy starts spending more time with his brother’s family, helping around the house and the rest of the film plays out the growing attraction between him and Grace. Meanwhile, Sam survives the attack on his helicopter and is being held prisoner and tortured.

Natalie Portman turns in a wonderfully nuanced performance as a woman trying to process the unbelievable grief she is experiencing. There are scenes where you can see Grace putting on a brave face for those around her, especially her children, but every so often she lets it slip and reveals the hurt that exists under the surface. For example, there is a scene where everyone throws a surprise birthday party for Grace and as she’s about to blow out the candles on her cake. There is a moment where she has a distant, haunted look before catching herself and regaining her pleasant façade. It’s a nice bit of acting from Portman and throughout the film she conveys a complex range of emotions as the actress shows how Grace processes the grief of her husband’s death and her emerging, conflicted feelings for Tommy.

Brothers is a slow burn, slice-of-life film as Sheridan dives deep into this family, examining the dynamic between Tommy and his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War. There are hints that his strict, perhaps even abusive style of parenting pushed Tommy to the kind of life he leads – an aimless ne’er’-do-well with a past full of regrets. The more time he spends with Grace and her daughters, the more of an influence they have on him. They provide a stabilizing effect by giving him a sense of purpose. Jake Gyllenhaal does a nice job of conveying Tommy’s inner turmoil, which he carries around with him. Initially, he gets to play the brooding, moody brother, but over the course of the film he transforms into someone who is more open and responsible. It’s a natural progression that the actor conveys expertly.


Tobey Maguire’s character also undergoes a transformation from genial family man to paranoid soldier suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder after spending several months as a prisoner of war. The actor goes through an impressive physical transformation as Sam is beaten and deprived of sleep so that he becomes a shadow of his former self. He does what he has to do in order to survive. If Brothers has a flaw it is that too much time is spent in Afghanistan showing how Sam’s humanity is stripped away by his captors. I understand the purpose of these scenes – they explain his behavior later on when he finally returns home, but as they continue and Sam’s situation gets bleaker, the balance that Sheridan has maintained up to this point is threatened. The Afghanistan scenes could have been left up to our imagination and conveyed through well-written expositional dialogue delivered by the talented Maguire.

As he demonstrated with In America (2002), Sheridan has a real affinity for getting naturalistic performances out of child actors and Brothers is no different, especially from Bailee Madison who plays the slightly older of the two daughters. Isabelle is more aware of what is going on and that something isn’t right with her father. This realization, as it plays briefly over her face in one scene, is absolutely heartbreaking. As a result, she is more emotional than her happy-go-lucky sibling. Madison really stands out during a tense dinner scene towards the end of the film when Isabelle intentionally baits her father. She is acting out, like a petulant child, but is also the only one in the family who has the courage to address the big elephant in the room – Sam’s increasingly erratic behavior.

Originally, Jim Sheridan was writing a story about two brothers growing up in Ireland but couldn’t get the financing for it. He ended up watching Susanna Bier's 2004 Danish film Brodre and liked it so much he thought it could be remade for North American audiences, changing the emphasis from an illicit love triangle to that of the family. Jake Gyllenhaal was the first actor to sign on, followed by Tobey Maguire and Natalie Portman. 


At the time she signed on to do Brothers, Portman made a conscious decision to pick more mature roles: “I’m trying to find roles that demand more adulthood from me because you can get stuck in a very awful cute cycle as a woman in film – especially being such a small person.” To prepare for the part, the actress met with Army wives in order to understand how they managed their lives. She also bonded with the young actresses playing her daughters by having them over for baking parties and hanging out with them between takes. She and Maguire were able to play husband and wife so well because they had known each other for 14 years prior. She said, “Just knowing someone for that long is great history to have when you’re walking on set and playing husband and wife.” In addition, she had also known co-star Gyllenhaal for ten years.

During rehearsals and on set, Sheridan played a live version of Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” to get Gyllenhaal in the mood of a scene where Tommy and Grace share a quiet moment together. For Gyllenhaal, the song reminded him of the connection to his family, in particular his father. In working with the child actors, Sheridan had his own specific method: “what I do is present a scene to them as a problem, a kind of puzzle, and then ask them questions, what they think the character is thinking, or wants to do.”

Brothers received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Maguire’s performance: “This becomes Tobey Maguire’s film to dominate, and I’ve never seen these dark depths in him before. Actors possess a great gift to surprise us, if they find the right material in their hands.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “And Brothers itself – a smart, well-meaning project – never quite pulls itself together. It has a vague, half-finished feeling, as if it had not figured out what it was trying to do. Which may amount to a kind of realism – an accurate reflection of where we are in Afghanistan.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Brothers isn’t badly acted, but as directed by the increasingly impersonal Jim Sheridan, it’s lumbering and heavy-handed, a film that piles on overwrought dramatic twists until it begins to creak under the weight of its presumed significance.”


USA Today gave the film three out of four stars and Claudia Puig wrote, “Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare are excellent as Sam and Grace’s young daughters, derailed by their dad’s scary bouts of anger and his newfound coldness. The youthful portrayals recall the indelible roles of the young daughters in Sheridan’s wonderful 2003 film, In America.” The Los Angeles Times’ Betsey Sharkey wrote, “There will be echoes of that passion and poignancy in Brothers. But unlike the clear voice of those earlier films, Sheridan seems as conflicted as the Cahills about their virtues and failings.” Finally, in his review for the Washington Post, Michael O’Sullivan wrote, “Brothers is depressing as hell. And, like most war movies these days, it ends on a note that’s far from hopeful. But it’s good, and wise, and it feels true. Meaning, it hurts.”

Brothers is a fusion of Sheridan’s fascination with people put under extraordinary duress, like In the Name of the Father (1993), and families dealing with hardships, like In America. At times, Brothers feels like one of the films from the 1980s that dealt with families struggling to understand loved ones that had served time in the Vietnam War – In Country (1989) and Jacknife (1989) are two that come immediately to mind as spiritual antecedents to Brothers. In Sheridan’s capable hands, this film is a nicely observed character study that tries to show the trauma a soldier experience during war and what their family goes through at home, perhaps lingering a little too long on the hardships Sam endures in Afghanistan.

Brothers is a good film about an uncomfortable topic. It doesn’t offer any easy answers – how can it while we are still mired in this war? This will only come with time, but it exists as a document of where we are now. The war in the Middle East may be an unpopular one, but it is important that the stories of the people that fought it over there and continue to do so back home are told. By telling their stories maybe we can process how the war has affected us as a country.



SOURCES

Ditzian, Eric. “Brothers’ Star Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman Talk ‘Growing Up Together.’” MTV.com. December 2, 2009.

Farquharson, Vanessa. “Jim Sheridan Reflects on the Betrayals at Brothers’ Core.” The Financial Post. December 4, 2009.

Freydkin, Donna. “Natalie Portman Transitions into Adult Role in Brothers.” USA Today. December 4, 2009.

“Springsteen’s The River Brings Gyllenhaal to Tears on Set.” WENN Entertainment News Wire Service. December 3, 2009.

Thompson, Bob. “When Irish Eyes are Filming.” Vancouver Sun. December 4, 2009.


Vaughan, R.M. “You leave it to the actors, really, to the acting.” Globe & Mail. December 4, 2009.

Friday, December 5, 2014

48 Hrs.

Director Walter Hill had a terrific run of films in the late 1970s and into the early 1980s with the likes of The Driver (1978), The Warriors (1979) and Southern Comfort (1981). He acquired a reputation for making visceral, no-nonsense action movies populated by tough-talking cops and criminals. Hill continued this trend with 48 Hrs. (1982), a gritty buddy cop action comedy that provided a breakout role for comedian Eddie Murphy and launched a very successful series of movies for him during the ‘80s. Amazingly, the project survived movie studio moves and a rocky production that saw Murphy’s role re-written extensively and executives butting heads with Hill over his depiction of on-screen violence. His instincts were validated with the film’s critical and commercial success that helped kickstart a resurgence in the buddy cop genre and led to a rather lackluster sequel in 1990.

Hill starts things off in dramatic fashion with a daring road gang escape as Albert Ganz (James Remar) is freed by his partner in crime Billy Bear (Sonny Landham) and, in the process, kills two prison guards. This sequence is depicted in Hill’s trademark efficient fashion complete with crisp editing and meat and potatoes camerawork that always tell us where everyone is and what’s going on. He has always had a knack for conveying kinetic action and it is certainly on display in 48 Hrs. with some nicely staged sequences that aren’t showy, but aren’t supposed to be – that’s not Hill’s style. He definitely harkens back to classic journeymen directors like Don Siegel or contemporaries like John Flynn (Best Seller).

He then cuts to a familiar scene for any Nick Nolte fan – a tired, grumpy burn-out of a man (also see North Dallas Forty, Teachers, etc.) who embodies that famous line from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981): “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” Nolte is Jack Cates, a police detective who wakes up with a coffee mug full of booze and an argument with his long-suffering girlfriend (a lovely Annette O’Toole). “That’s a fairly crummy way to start a morning,” she tells him, to which he replies, “Maybe I got a fairly crummy day ahead.” Through their behavior and actions, Nolte and Annette O’Toole tell us more than a few things about Cates and his attitude towards life. Visually, Hill informs us of the man’s profession without explicitly spelling it out. Also, Cates drives a beat-up old convertible that mirrors his rumpled appearance. It’s refreshing to see a filmmaker that assumes the audience has a modicum of intelligence.


While providing back-up for two fellow police detectives (one of whom played by reliable character actor Jonathan Banks) on a routine call (aren’t they always?), Cates runs afoul of Ganz and Billy in a violent hotel lobby showdown that leaves his co-workers dead and his gun in the crooks’ possession. Wracked with guilt over one of them being killed with his gun, Cates makes it his personal mission to find Ganz and Billy and take them down. It turns out that they had been tracking down other members of a gang that pulled off an armed robbery a few years ago and Ganz wants to collect the loot. One of them – Reggie Hammond (Eddie Murphy) – is still in prison and makes a deal with Cates: if he can be temporarily released from prison he’ll help the lawman catch Ganz, but they only have 48 hours to do it.

Right from the get-go Cates makes it clear that he doesn’t like Reggie and lays out how it’s going to be: “Now, get this – we ain’t partners, we ain’t brothers and we ain’t friends. I’m puttin’ you down and keepin’ you down until Ganz is locked up or dead. And if Ganz gets away you’re going to be sorry you ever met me.” And so begins a contentious partnership that sees the two men bicker, trade insults and, at one point, even come to blows until they develop a grudging respect for one another.

Nick Nolte brings his customary intensity to the role. For example, there’s a scene where Cates “questions” one of Ganz’s gang (the always reliable David Patrick Kelly) by repeatedly slamming him into a car door in a way that looks really painful and done with what looks like genuine ferocity while a bemused Reggie cracks jokes. Nolte plays well off of Murphy with his surly cop routine bouncing off of the comedian’s wisecracking convict. They have an antagonistic relationship complete with plenty of cussing each other out and racial slurs that are particularly jarring in this day and age of political correctness. It’s not that Cates is racist per se, but that he is saying those things to be mean and keep Reggie under control as he states early on.


From his first appearance in prison singing “Roxanne” by the Police in a hilarious falsetto to how he takes control of a redneck bar, Eddie Murphy is a revelation in 48 Hrs. and it is easy to see why this film made him a star. Watch how he works the room in the aforementioned bar sequence, putting everyone in their place through sheer force of will, swagger and tons of charisma to burn as he tells one upstart patron, “I’m your worst fuckin’ nightmare. I’m a nigger with a badge and that means I got permission to kick your fuckin’ ass whenever I feel like it.” It is a testimony to Murphy’s skills as a performer that he is able to pull that scene off so convincingly. Reggie also gives as good as he gets, standing up to Cates’ bullying tactics and racial slurs, which culminates in a drop down, drag out fist fight between the two men. In a nice bit of role reversal, Reggie turns the tables on Cates late on in the film when they meet at an African American nightclub, which Hill makes a point of showing the contrast in music and atmosphere to the redneck bar earlier on. It is now Cates’ turn to feel out of place. They also get to share a moment shortly afterwards and put their differences aside for a few minutes.

James Remar is good (maybe a little too good) as the nasty Ganz, a man not above kidnapping the girlfriend of one of his ex-partners and threatening to “put holes in her you never even thought of” if he doesn’t get his money. The actor is scarily convincing and conveys a ruthless intensity that makes Ganz a legitimate threat to our heroes. Looking lean and mean, the appropriately wild-eyed Remar seems to relish his role of a sociopath that enjoys killing cops. He has a pretty simple outlook on life: if he wants something, he takes it. Someone gets in his way, he kills them. It’s a testimony to Remar’s skills as an actor that the final showdown, as cliché as it is, is such a tense affair, which Hill milks for all its worth. Throughout the film, Remar continually demonstrates what a potent threat Ganz is to our heroes in the way he carries himself and the complete disregard he has for those around him.

Producer Lawrence Gordon had an idea for crime movie set in Louisiana that involved the kidnapping of the governor’s daughter. She had dynamite strapped to her head and if the ransom wasn’t delivered in 48 hours, the bad guys planned to kill her. So, her family gets the meanest cop to rescue her and he recruits one of the most vicious criminals, who also happens to be the kidnapper’s cellmate, out of worst prison to help him.


Editor Roger Spottiswoode wanted to direct and Hill, whom he had worked with in the past, suggested he rewrite the story. Spottiswoode changed the location, removed the dynamite and made it more realistic. At the time, the project was at Columbia Pictures, but Gordon had a deal with Paramount Pictures and it moved over to them. After several more drafts, the studio asked Hill to rewrite it for Clint Eastwood. The actor wasn’t interested in playing the cop and wanted to be the criminal instead. However, he decided to make Escape from Alcatraz (1979) and lost interest in 48 Hrs.

Hill suggested Richard Pryor play the criminal. The studio didn’t agree and so Hill went off to make The Long Riders (1980) and Southern Comfort. Meanwhile, the script for 48 Hrs. languished at Paramount for years. The problem wasn’t with it, but the casting of the two lead characters. Hill got a call from Gordon and was told that Nick Nolte wanted to make the film and was he interested in directing? He agreed and tried again to cast Pryor, but was unable to. Hill then tried Gregory Hines but he wasn’t available either. The president of production Don Simpson saw Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live and studio head Michael Eisner agreed that he would be perfect to play the convict opposite Nolte.

Once they got the greenlight, Hill brought in Larry Gross to tweak the script to the personalities of Nolte and Murphy, rewriting the latter’s character up to the very last day of shooting. Murphy couldn’t get out of his commitment to Saturday Night Live and joined the production two weeks after principal photography had begun. During filming, studio executives didn’t think Murphy’s scenes were funny enough. Eisner wanted to meet with Hill about it, but Gordon refused and this prompted Eisner to threaten shutting the production down. Gordon backed down and Hill told Eisner that he was getting good stuff from the comedian. Hill butted heads with the studio again when they suggested that the first cut of the film be shown to a preview audience. Hill refused and the studio insisted until the director backed down. In addition, Hill hated the marketing campaign the studio created for the film.


48 Hrs. enjoyed mostly positive reviews from critics at the time. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “The movie’s story is nothing to write home about. It’s pretty routine. What makes the movie special is how it’s made. Nolte and Murphy are good, and their dialogue is good, too – quirky and funny.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Nolte, as the grouch of the pair, handles the less showy role expertly, while Mr. Murphy runs away with every comic situation that comes his way.” The Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr wrote, “Hill excels as usual with his chugging, stylized action scenes, and his use of San Francisco achieves something I’d thought impossible—it gives this most clichéd of movie locations a fresh, highly charged new look.”

The mismatched buddy cop formula has been done to death by now and so one has to remember how fresh 48 Hrs. was back in 1982. There had been all kinds of buddy cop movies in the ‘70s, but in keeping with the tone of the decade, many ended ambiguously or on a down note. Hill’s film has one foot in that decade, with its gritty violence and salty dialogue, while also anticipating the blockbuster mentality of the ‘80s with its comedic set pieces and happy ending. It is also amazing to see how much anger is directed at various characters and the intensity of it, which certainly earned the film its R rating. In our current climate a lot of the film’s edges would’ve been softened by studio notes, test screenings and the ratings board, which makes one appreciate how much Hill got away with in the final cut. After 48 Hrs. it seemed like Hollywood was practically handing out buddy cop movies to every comedian/dramatic actor combination they could dream up. Most of them pale in comparison including Another 48 Hrs. (1990), which Hill returned to direct and came across as simply a rehash of the first film.


SOURCES

McGilligan, Patrick. “Walter Hill: Last Man Standing.” Film International. June 2004.

Schwartz, Tony. “Hollywood’s Hottest Stars.” New York Magazine. July 30, 1984.

Zelazny, Jon. “Kicking Ass with Walter Hill.” The Hollywood Interview. December 8, 2012.


Further reading: check out Sean Gill's awesome review over at his blog.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Film Critic Hall of Fame: J. Hoberman

Midnight Movies by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum was the first book of film criticism that I read. They took a look at the rise of cult movies thanks to midnight screenings all over the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. My parents bought it for me at a bookstore in Toronto because of my newfound appreciation of David Lynch. Twin Peaks had premiered on television not long ago and I began seeking out everything he had directed. Midnight Movies devoted an entire chapter to his early work, in particular Eraserhead (1977), but it was the afterword where the two critics talked about Twin Peaks in relation to the midnight movie phenomenon that really stayed with me. Hoberman called the show, “the ultimate extension of the midnight movie aesthetic and went on to say:

Twin Peaks is reportedly extremely popular with college students but what’s more striking is its figurative and literal domestication of the midnight aesthetic. I think it’s significant that the network switched the show to Saturday night, which gives it a kind of generational hook. Where once you might have run off to see Night of the Living Dead at midnight now you can stay home and watch Twin Peaks.”

After reading that and absorbing his chapters on the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky and John Waters, I had to read more of Hoberman’s writing. It wasn’t easy as, at the time, he wrote for the Village Voice, a newspaper I did not have access to where I lived in Canada. Eventually, thanks to the Internet, I was able to get access to his film reviews and read them voraciously.


Hoberman originally wanted to be an avant-garde filmmaker, but found it to be “really hard and largely thankless.” He had been writing features for counterculture magazines when Richard Goldstein, arts editor for the Village Voice, invited him to contribute reviews of avant-garde and cult movies. His debut review was for Eraserhead on October 24, 1977 where he famously wrote, “Eraserhead’s not a movie I’d drop acid for, although I would consider it a revolutionary act if someone dropped a reel of it into the middle of Star Wars.” At the time, Hoberman was the third string writer after Andrew Sarris and Tom Allen. He remembers that at the time, he wasn’t “particularly concerned with Hollywood and I didn’t really see myself as a movie reviewer—more like someone happily toiling in the vineyard of film culture and getting paid for it.”

When Sarris was seriously ill in 1984, Hoberman temporarily filled in for him, reviewing his first Hollywood movie, the Clint Eastwood thriller Tightrope (1984). Sarris returned and Hoberman did such a good job that he was given more mainstream fare to review and “that’s the point at which I began to hate Steven Spielberg.” He became the Voice’s senior film critic in 1988 where he worked until 2012.

Hoberman’s approach to film reviewing is “as a form of journalism. You’re reporting on something, and you get to be much more subjective and playful than you would be if you were simply reporting a news story, but I think that you need to provide a certain amount of information and context.” One of the things the draws me to his writing is a willingness to go against the grain and defend a film that is universally panned by his counterparts. Case in point: he was one of the few mainstream critics to “get” Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). While most everyone else was calling it an incoherent mess he thought otherwise: “At once prestigious literary adaption and slapstick buddy flick, this is something like Fellini Cheech and Chong—this is a lowbrow art film, an egghead monster movie, a gross-out trip to the lost continent of Mu, a hilarious paean to reckless indulgence, and perhaps the most widely released midnight movie ever made.” In that same vein, Hoberman was one of the few American critics that defended Richard Kelly’s much maligned sci-fi opus Southland Tales (2006): “Why was the Kelly Code too much to take? Sensory overload is certainly a factor, but unlike Da Vinci [Code], Southland Tales actually is a visionary film about the end of times. There hasn’t been anything comparable in American movies since Mulholland Drive.”

Unlike say, Harlan Ellison or Jay Scott, two film critics who I have already examined on this blog, Hoberman is a more cerebral writer. To whit, in his review of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998): “Terrence Malick’s hugely ambitious, austerely hallucinated adaptation of James Jones’s 1962 novel – a 500-page account of combat in Guadalcanal – is a metaphysical platoon movie in which battlefield confusion is melded with an Emersonian meditation on the nature of nature.” Another thing I like about Hoberman’s writing style is his ability to come up with some really brilliant observations about a given film. For example, here’s a gem from his review of Ghost World (2001): “It’s smart enough to recognize that, as fleeting as adolescence may be, the world is haunted by the post-adolescent walking wounded. There’s an admirable absence of closure. As the title suggests, the movie is a place—or better, a state of being.”

As is always the case with any critic, I don’t see eye to eye with Hoberman on everything. His review of Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999) saw him take a few digs at the director’s signature style:

“Mann rarely misses a chance to savor the brooding dusk from a skyscraper window, while an ongoing search for the audiovisual equivalent of purple prose, underscores the high drama with a bizarre mélange of Gregorian chants and world-music yodeling. At 155 minutes, The Insider may be pumped-up, but it’s rarely boring.”

Hoberman did go on to give Mann’s next film, Ali (2001) a mostly positive review, but I always get the feeling that he is kind of ambivalent towards Mann’s films, like he wants to like them, but always finds something wrong with them.

Hoberman tends to play it straight for most of reviews, but every so often he comes up with a memorable zinger like in his review of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975):

“Back in 1976, Barry Lyndon’s most problematic aspects was its blatant stunt casting—the equivalent today of using Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Moss to anchor something like The Charterhouse of Parma. Still young and beautiful, O’Neal (a TV heartthrob turned superstar with the mega success of Love Story in 1970) starts out a ridiculously po-faced dullard and eventually ‘matures’ into a stern-looking dolt. But Barry Lyndon is a movie that encourages the long view, and seen from the perspective of a quarter-century, the actor appears as a blank stand-in for himself, just a good-looking chess piece for Kubrick to maneuver around the board.”

I find that almost every film reviewer as a critical blindspot – a filmmaker or genre they just don’t like or don’t get. For Pauline Kael it was Kubrick, for Hoberman it is the Coen brothers. His main issue with their work is of the anti-Semitism he feels is rampant in films like Miller’s Crossing (1990) and Barton Fink (1991). This is a rather odd charge considering that Joel and Ethan Coen are in fact Jewish. In his grudgingly positive review of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), he lays out his problems with the Coens’ films:

“Although a robust disdain for their creatures is a given, it is when the Coens deploy explicitly Jewish characters that their glee turns hostile. The spectacle of the pathetic cringing Jew played by John Turturro on his knees and begging for his life in Miller’s Crossing was less antic than appalling. Turturro starred as another sort of Jew in Barton Fink, which set in 1941, staged a virtual death match between two then potent stereotypes—the vulgar Hollywood mogul and the arty New York communist—without any hint that their minstrel show battle royale was occurring at the acme of worldwide anti-Semitism.”

He then proceeds to concede that Llewyn Davis is an “almost affectionate send-up of the early ‘60s Greenwich Village folk scene, is certainly their warmest film in the 16 years since The Big Lebowski in part because, as in Lebowski, the lead actor—Oscar Isaac—inspires a sympathy beyond the constraints of his creators’ rote contempt.” In a backhanded complement, Hoberman finds Davis “something more than a cartoon. So is the movie, which is predicated on the Coens’ enthusiasm for its music that, particularly as sung by Isaac, is surprisingly affecting. Malice is tempered by fondness occasionally verging on admiration.” Wow, it actually sounded like he sort of, kind of liked it, despite his best efforts not to!

The Village Voice fired Hoberman on January 4, 2012 and he became the next casualty on a long line of prestigious critics that have been let go from newspapers and magazines. If his firing really stings it may be that it feels like the end of era. Not to worry, though, he still continues to write film reviews for the likes of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and The Guardian among others. He also has his own website where he archives his reviews and promotes his latest book. Hoberman remains a strong and vital critical voice in a field that is increasingly dominated by writers that lack the kind of skill and knowledge that he has accrued over the years.


SOURCES

Goldsmith, Leo. “An Interview with J. Hoberman.” Not Coming to a Theater Near You. April 22, 2011.


Peranson, Mark. “Film Criticism After Film Criticism: The J. Hoberman Affair.” Cinemascope. 2012.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Bourne Ultimatum

After two films with Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) on the defensive and on the run, The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) sees our hero going on the offensive and taking the fight to his handlers. Coming full circle not only thematically, but also on a production level – the film was born out of chaos as principal photography began without a completed screenplay – it managed to come out the other side with a coherent final product that endeared itself to both audiences and critics. Ultimatum not only avoids the dreaded third installment of a trilogy jinx (they are notoriously the weakest), but ends up being the strongest one of the series as Bourne gets some definitive answers to who he is and his past.

Ultimatum picks up right where The Bourne Supremacy (2004) left off with Bourne on the run in Moscow after being seriously injured in an exciting car chase with a fellow Treadstone assassin. Meanwhile, Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), an investigative reporter with The Guardian, a British newspaper, is working on a story about Bourne and a top-secret CIA operation known as Blackbriar. Naturally, the agency finds out and puts Ross under surveillance in the hopes that Bourne will contact him, which he does, at a busy London train station.

Bourne’s rendezvous with Ross amidst the hustle and bustle of the train station is a nice homage to the opening of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) as the two men are heavily scrutinized by all kinds of CIA surveillance. There is a lot of fun to be had watching Bourne masterfully evade all their manpower and hi-tech equipment in a wonderfully intense and insanely choreographed sequence that successfully ratchets up the tension as the CIA closes in. However, before Bourne can get Ross to reveal his source, an extremely efficient Blackbriar assassin (Edgar Ramirez) kills the journalist and disappears like a ghost.


Fortunately, Bourne takes Ross’ notes and figures out that the source is located in Madrid. During the course of his investigation, Bourne is reunited with Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), a CIA operative sympathetic to his plight. Within the agency, the man in charge of Blackbriar, CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) wants Bourne dead because he sees him as a dangerous liability while another agent, Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), wants to take him alive because she doesn’t agree with Vosen’s methods. This results in some wonderfully testy bickering between the two actors as they argue over what to do about Bourne. The rest of Ultimatum plays out as a brilliantly staged cat and mouse game with Bourne turning the tables on his handlers.

This time around, David Strathairn is the veteran character actor enlisted to play the CIA honcho tasked to find and eliminate Bourne. Like Chris Cooper (The Bourne Identity) and Brian Cox (The Bourne Supremacy) before him, he has the gravitas to play a take-charge authority figure and part of the enjoyment of this film is watching Bourne constantly thwart Vosen’s plans. In Ultimatum, Landy is a more sympathetic figure as she wants to capture Bourne alive (unlike Vosen). As the film progresses and she learns more about what the United States government did to Bourne and others in Treadstone, she realizes that she can no longer be complicit in the CIA’s illegal activities. Nicky Parsons also undergoes significant development as she ends up helping Bourne and turns out to be a key figure in his past.

Paul Greengrass, who also directed Supremacy, is back behind the camera bringing his trademark, no-nonsense pacing and visceral, hand-held camerawork to Ultimatum. The film’s action sequences are the epitome of edgy intensity as the fight scenes are quick and as brutal as a PG-13 rating will allow. They are realistically depicted – after all, guys as well trained as Bourne don’t waste any time and know exactly how to bring someone down as quickly and as efficiently as possible.


Like with the other Bourne films, Ultimatum also has exciting chases, including the police pursuing Bourne over rooftops in Tangiers while he’s chasing an assassin going after Nicky, and a crazy car chase through the busy streets of New York City. Greengrass and his stunt people upped the ante on the chases, most notably the sequence in Tangiers, which starts off with scooters in the busy streets and then after a car bomb goes off, along rooftops on foot. Greengrass’ kinetic camerawork is taken to the next level as we literally follow Bourne leaping through the air from one building to another.

The lo-tech versus hi-tech dichotomy is beautifully realized in all three Bourne films as symbolized in the way he kills the highly trained assassins sent to kill him. In The Bourne Identity (2002), it’s with a pen, in Supremacy it’s with a rolled up magazine and in Ultimatum it’s with a book. The films never make a big deal about it and even show how well Bourne can manipulate technology, but his best chance at survival is to MacGyver it and stay off the grid.

With the phenomenal success of The Bourne Supremacy, Universal Pictures persuaded screenwriter Tony Gilroy to write the first draft of The Bourne Ultimatum for a significant amount of money, but only under the conditions that he could leave after its completion and that he wouldn’t have to speak with director Paul Greengrass, who was also returning, and did not get along with the writer. According to Damon, “It’s really the studio’s fault for putting themselves in that position. I don’t blame Tony for taking a boatload of money and handing in what he handed in. It’s just that it was unreadable. This is a career-ender.”


After Gilroy left the project and a release date looming, Greengrass brought in four other writers including George Nolfi, Scott Z. Burns, and Tom Stoppard, the latter who said of his input: “Some of the themes are still mine—but I don’t think there’s a single word of mine in the film.” Amazingly, before the film’s release date, Gilroy arbitrated and lost to get sole credit. As a result, the filmmakers were writing the script as they were making the film over three continents in 140 shooting days. According to Damon, “There wasn’t a single day where we didn’t have new pages! The main issue was that a question was never answered: Why was Bourne here? … What Paul settled on was that it has to be a story about meeting his maker.”

The exciting chase through the streets of Tangiers was an homage to Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966). It took 14 days to shoot with Bourne’s rooftop leap done by a stuntman jumping right behind Bourne while carrying a small, lightweight camera. According to second unit director and stunt coordinator Dan Bradley, he often allowed the stunt people to hold the cameras because “they’re not too freaked out about getting hit or sliding under something while holding a camera. Some of the best shots in Supremacy and Ultimatum are because the stunt guys were operating.” Once again, Greengrass applied an independent film aesthetic to a big studio movie budget or, as he put it, “one of the ways you do it is to try your luck and set the action in places where you can’t behave like a big movie … You’re forced to sort of be a bit like a student film and make it up as you go along, live on the land and shoot when people are around.”

The Bourne Ultimatum received mostly positive reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and praised Greengrass’ direction: “He not only creates (or seems to create) amazingly long takes but does it without calling attention to them. Whether they actually are unbroken stretches of film or are spliced together by invisible wipes, what counts is that they present such mind-blowing action that I forgot to keep track.” In her review for The New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “Bourne is now very much a man alone, existentially and otherwise. Mr. Damon makes him haunted, brooding and dark. The light seems to have gone out in his eyes, and the skin stretches so tightly across his cantilevered cheekbones that you can see the outline of his skull, its macabre silhouette. He looks like death in more ways than one.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The Bourne Ultimatum is a spectacular windup toy of a thriller – a contraption made by an artist.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano wrote, “Damon lends an air of conscious integrity to the part, a quality of reflective introspection that acts as an amazingly effective ballast against the complete implausibility of his continued survival.”

However, Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “Greengrass cuts each action scene into agitated bits; but he can’t let fast enough alone. Could he please explain why, in the chat scenes, the camera is afflicted with Parkinson’s? The film frame trembles, obscures the speaker with the listener’s shoulder, annoys viewers and distracts them from the content of the scene.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter wrote, “It’s not a movie; it’s a trip through a gun barrel at the head of a cloud of exploding gas, and you end up splattered against a wall, then sliding into the dust with the sound of the drums ringing in your head for hours.”


If Identity was about our hero escaping from his CIA handlers and Supremacy was about him figuring out why they are still after him, then Ultimatum is all about getting revenge on those responsible for messing up his life in the first place and figuring out, once and for all, his identity. What elevates Ultimatum (and the rest of the series) above, say, the Mission: Impossible movies, is that it is more than just an exciting thriller (although, it does work on that level). It is also has a sharp, political component in the form of a scathing critique of the CIA’s dirty little secrets. The series ultimately asks, what happens when a highly-trained and conditioned government operative questions what he does and why? How does he undo the programming that made him what he is and come to grips with what he’s done? This film answers these questions to a satisfying degree while also being very entertaining conclusion to the series.


SOURCES

Carnevale, Rob. “The Bourne Ultimatum – Paul Greengrass Interview.” indieLONDON. 2007.

Crabtree, Sheigh. “When He Calls ‘Action,’ He Means It.” Los Angeles Times. August 5, 2007.

Max, D.T. “Twister.” The New Yorker. March 16, 2009.

Nashawaty, Chris. “The Strong Violent Type.” Entertainment Weekly. August 6, 2007.

Rapkin, Mickey. “Tom Stoppard.” Time Out New York. October 18, 2007.

Thompson, Anne. “Greengrass Brings Auds Into Picture.” Variety. August 3, 2007.


Wallace, Amy. “Wicked Smaht.” GQ. January 2012.