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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

History (Based On A True Story)

Recently seeing Elizabeth: The Golden Age has got me thinking about historical films in general. I'm personally not of the opinion that an historical film necessarily has to be "historically accurate." History is history and a film is a film, and if a film skews history in it’s effort to tell a story, I think that’s okay. After all, Shakespeare's history plays aren't exactly accurate to history, but that doesn't make them any less great, perhaps because he focuses more on the larger, universal truths of human nature than on textbook analysis of events. And I think that's what makes a good historical film as well - not the literal recorded truth of events, but the deeper exploration of the human psyche.

Most films set in times past play at least a little fast and loose with events, or sequences of events, and the characterization of historical/biographical figures. In and of itself, that doesn't bother me, but it does bother me when filmmakers mess around with history and then market the film as being "the truth story" or "based on a true story" or some other such nonsense and then expect its viewers to ignore its inaccuracies. There are three things about true/historical stories that really bother me, even when they appear in otherwise wonderful films:

1. The Americanization of World War II: I’ll preface this by saying that I’m not arguing against the U.S.’s overwhelming contribution to winning the war, nor am I arguing that those contributions shouldn’t be celebrated on film. But it bothers me when Hollywood producers take a true story about, say, those fighting in the British forces but rewrite it so that it’s about Americans (see U-571); or retain the part about it involving British soldiers but plunk an American in the middle to play the loner/anti-hero (The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape); or include lines suggesting that the war didn’t even matter until the U.S. was involved, as Pearl Harbor does when, during the bombing, one character turns to another and states: “I think World War Two just started.” I’m sure the people who spent the last couple of years being slaughtered across Europe would be pleased to know that the conflict has finally begun.

2. Depictions of race relations during the American slavery era: I admit that Gone With The Wind is… problematic (at best) in terms of its depiction of slaves and slavery, but at least the film had the balls to portray the O’Haras as having owned slaves, and as having believed in their right to continue doing so. It might not be pretty or pleasant, but at least it rings true since, after all, the American Civil War wouldn’t have taken place if some people hadn’t believed that to be their right. In a film like The Patriot, the hero runs a plantation in the South but doesn’t own slaves, instead employing free black men to work his land; in Cold Mountain slaves are briefly glimpsed working in the background and the lily-white Southern Belle heroine openly expresses herself as being against slavery. I understand that it’s an uphill battle to make a character likeable if they’re also portrayed as having owned slaves, but if you’re going to go to the trouble of setting a story in a particular era of time, I think it’s okay to make your characters a product of that era. Sure, there probably were people living in the South during the time of slavery who recognized the conflicting nature of founding a nation on the principle that every man is created equal, and on the right of men to own slaves. But given the prevalence of slave ownership during that time, one has to imagine that such attitudes were a) few and far between and/or b) thought but not practiced. People (even good people) owned slaves in the not-so-distant past. Either accept that, or stop making movies that take place before the end of the Civil War.

3. Throwing the girls a bone: I like it when women are portrayed as having active roles in action movies, mostly because you (still) don’t see a lot of that. However, don’t dress Keira Knightley up like a Celtic guerrilla warrior and tell me that this is the “true” story of Camelot (in fact if you’re going to include Lancelot in the story, the word “true” should never even come up in the first place). I have no problem with seeing women portrayed as being able to kick ass, and in certain instances in history that would in fact be accurate (in depicting perhaps Joan or Arc, or Boadicea), but when a woman warrior (especially one who looks like she’d be knocked on her ass by a light breeze) is dropped into the story as sidekick/love interest for the hero in order to appeal to a female audience (and to the male audience, given what these women invariably look like), it insults us all. I know it sucks that history is dominated by “great men” doing “great things” but… sometimes that’s just the way things were and I really don’t want to see another movie where a woman is introduced as a total badass giving the hero a run for his money, only to end up simpering in his arms by the end.

I know that all these things are designed to make films more marketable, but they really put my teeth on edge. I don’t care if a film is historically accurate as long as it’s good. So, if you’re a filmmaker who plans to make an “historical” film, please rely more on your story and the actors bringing it to life, than on a focus group guided ideas of what has to be included in order to make the film palatable (and please, for the love of God, do not have your characters spouting wink-wink-nudge-nudge lines like one of the many found in The Patriot, most notably Mel Gibson’s assertion that “It’s a free country. Or at least, it will be.” Fuck. You.)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Review: Elizabeth: The Golden Age

This is a beautiful movie… to look at. Structurally and narratively, it is a mess. This is a film that is suffocated under the weight of its own excess, almost as if the story itself were an excuse for its costumes and art direction. It is not a film wholly concerned with historical accuracy, but that doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is the shallowness of the story when coupled with such rich historical figures, portrayed by some of the best actors working today.

The main plotline of the film, which is a love story/love triangle between Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Bess, one of Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting, is entirely redundant and a waste of both Cate Blanchett and Clive Owen. The Queen being pressured to pick a suitor and make an alliance with one of Europe’s other kingdoms, as well as the Queen’s struggle to balance her public duty and her private desires for a man she cannot have for political and social reasons, are both issues that were explored in Elizabeth. The plotline is meant to show Elizabeth’s human side, the side with doubts and jealousies, but this is all ground that was covered in the previous film and not necessary for this one. The subplot of political intrigues, had it been explored more fully and properly, would have been more than enough to sustain the film. Instead we get brief glimpses of plots and counterplots in between Elizabeth and Raleigh exchanging googly eyes, or Elizabeth jealously watching Raleigh with Bess.

What we see of the political intriguing is good, especially the scenes involving Samantha Morton as Mary Queen of Scots. Morton is the standout here as a scapegoat betrayed by both sides in a “Holy War,” alternating between quiet anger at her imprisonment, and quiet acceptance of her fate. Blanchett and Owen are also good, but the story fails them by casting them as star crossed lovers. As for Geoffrey Rush, who returns as the Queen’s most trusted advisor, he’s good but has too little to do.

The climactic sea battle between the English and the Spanish armada is well done but, again, swells to excess. It ends operatically with the soundtrack booming victoriously as the waves sweep up over the English cliffs and Elizabeth watches the glow of the burning Spanish ships in the distance. But before we even get to that there’s scenes of a white horse (representing perhaps the spirit of the virgin Queen escaping the clutches of Spain and its inquisition) leaping from a Spanish ship into the sea, and a shot of Clive Owen standing on the side of a ship that makes him look like he’s posing for the cover of a romance novel. This is a film that could have been dialled down by about a hundred notches and still been a glorious and lush visual experience.

There are two kinds of sequels. There are ones like The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather Part II which elaborate and build on the stories and characters of their predecessor, and there are those like The Two Jakes and The Evening Star which make you lament that actors you love are playing character you love in films that would be best forgotten. This is the latter, and it is unfortunate.

Friday, October 26, 2007

No Girls Allowed

Recently Jeff Robinov, president of production at Warner Bros., issued a decree stating that the studio would “no longer [be] doing movies with women in the lead,” resulting, as one might imagine, in no small degree of controversy. A few days later salon.com responded by publishing a round table discussion involving 10 female filmmakers analyzing the various factors that contribute to making such a position an accepted (though unspoken) practice in Hollywood. If women make up roughly just over half the population, why is it that Hollywood studios cater almost exclusively to men?

Simply put, money is undoubtedly the overriding factor. There are about a dozen actors whose films consistently surpass the $100 million mark domestically, and rake in additional hundreds of millions of dollars overseas. There are no actresses who can claim this feat (once upon a time Julia Roberts would have been the exception, but she now works only sporadically and, outside of the Ocean’s films, hasn’t carried a film to the $100 million barrier since 2001’s America’s Sweethearts). One could argue that female centered films don’t become blockbuster successes because studios don’t put enough into the production and promotion of such films; but one could also argue that studios don’t go out of their way to produce and promote female centered films because the audience just doesn't show up for them.

Personally, I would argue that one of the major reasons why women don’t flock to see “women’s films” in the theater is because even those are skewed in some way to appeal to a male audience, and are often guided by a male sensibility (whether it belongs to the screenwriter, director or a producer) attempting to simulate a female perspective. Films written for women are, by and large, written for young women and promote standards of beauty to which the average woman has difficulty relating (in the romantic comedy genre especially, the leading female characters also tend to be overly neurotic in ways specifically designed to make their male counterparts seem more reasonable, which tends to make these characters even more unrelatable). When you consider that once actresses get too old to play the ingĂ©nue they begin to drift from leading roles to supporting ones, it seems only natural that we're less attached to them than we are to the leading men who litter the film landscape. Leading men are given decades to amass success amidst their failures (Bruce Willis' ratio of bombs to hits is probably about equal by now), but leading women are only given a handful of opportunities to carry films on their own and when their films bomb, they aren't easily forgiven for it.

There is no doubt that the contribution of women to film is devalued, especially the contribution of older women. At the risk of bogging you down in statistics, allow me to point out that the average age of the winners for the Oscar for Best Actor is 44. The average age of the Best Actress winners is 36, a number which is tilted slightly by the fact that Jessica Tandy won at 81, and Katherine Hepburn won three times between the ages of 60 and 74. 44 of the 80 winners for Best Actress were under the age of 35 when they won (and of those, only 16 were over the age of 30).

I’m often frustrated by the lack of decent roles for women – and the lack of films targetted towards women – at a time when there are so many wonderful actresses working, often in films that don't utilize them to their full potential and waste them in lackluster stories and roles. However, I think the issue at hand here is much larger than a simple battle of the sexes. It isn’t just that there are no parts for women, it’s that there is a surplus of roles for white men, and not a lot left over for everyone else. Aside from Will Smith and Denzel Washington, there aren’t any men of color who are regularly allowed to carry a major studio film on their own. To distil the issue down to gender politics misses the bigger picture. Hollywood has a very clear conception of their desired audience, and it is the desired audience of every industry with a product to sell: white men. And white men relate to white men, and white men comprise the majority of people working behind the cameras (directors, writers, producers, etc.), so it should come as now surprise that the stars who carry films are white men.

This isn’t merely a matter of there being a lack of good, leading roles for women, it is a matter of there being both a profound lack of roles for women (of any race) and for men of color, and a lack of people behind the scenes who are interested in catering to those demographics, and/or are among those demographics themselves. In this way Hollywood is basically in step with the world and industry at large, and until the dominant ideology changes drastically, I wouldn’t expect to see anyone outside the usual suspects (George, Brad, Bruce, Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise) carrying the major studio releases any time soon.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Keeping Ahead By Falling Behind

The forthcoming avalanche of War of Terror themed films has got me thinking. Hollywood seems to pride itself on being ahead of the political and social curve, too often resulting in the production of films that give off a tangible sense of back patting and shame-on-you-non-Liberal-elite finger wagging. But do any those films ever come out at a time when they might be able to make a real difference? Off the top of my head, I count eight films dealing in one way or another, and to greater and lesser degrees, with the quagmire in the Middle East: Redacted, Lions For Lambs, Rendition, In The Valley of Elah, Grace Is Gone, Badland, No End In Sight, and Charlie Wilson's War. I'm not saying these films aren't good, or that they aren't worth seeing, but I am asking if they aren't now just a little bit redundant.

It takes nothing now to be against the war in Iraq. It is widely accepted that the Bush administration misled the public regarding the motives for going to war, that information was distorted, that the U.S. government has not only condoned but engaged in practices that run contrary to the tenants of democracy and suspended some of the very freedoms that the war is officially being fought for. I don't object to the fact that a new slate of films confirms and explores these issues. I just can't help but wonder where all the anti-war movies were before, when their existence might have actually made a difference. Sure, there was Fahrenheit 9/11 back in 2004, but that only emphasizes my point. Michael Moore has always been a polarizing figure and he had nothing to lose by making a film that discredits the official war manifesto. Other people spoke out against the war, too, but kept their cameras rolling on other subjects. Now that is safe, and perhaps even commercial, to take an anti-war position, filmmakers are churning out these politically themed films faster than you can say "Oscar season."

To be clear, I have no problem with films (or people) that are against the war and demonstrate an actual understanding of the issues, have a point to make and ideas to express and explore; it's those that adopt an anti-war stance as if it's a trend, say the word "Iraq" without actually saying anything about it, that frustrate me. For example, this summer's The Invasion is a film that throws around references to Iraq without ever offering any actual insight into it, as if simply saying "Iraq" and expecting the audience to fill in the equation as "=bad" is enough and the issue need not be elaborated on. I think the war in Iraq is bad, but I also think that blindly agreeing that the war is bad isn't actually any better than blindly agreeing that the war is good. Just nodding along with the crowd accomplishes nothing.

In his Oscar acceptance speech in 2006, George Clooney congratulated Hollywood on always being ahead of the rest of the world in matters of political and social injustice. While I understand what he was trying to say and think that to some degree it is true, I disagree with the overall veracity of his statement. In order to illustrate, allow me to digress. The year before he won, the Academy had thrown a few nominations to Hotel Rwanda, a film that reminded the world of a tragedy it had once ignored. At the same time, the war in Darfur was in its second year. It is now approaching its fifth. Later this year a documentary called Darfur Now will be released, but the realm of Hollywood fiction isn't exactly teeming with films about the millions of displaced civilians, about the fact that China has sold millions of dollars in arms which have facilitated said displacement, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of deaths, for the sake of the oil and other commercial interests that China has in the region; or about how China uses the threat of its power of veto to prevent the UN from doing anything constructive to put an end to the conflict. In fact, until Mia Farrow wrote him a letter expressing her disappointment that the man who made Schindler's List could do anything to legitimize and condone a government that is financing genocide, Steven Spielberg was making plans to produce the openning ceremonies of China's 2008 Olympic games. My point is this: by the time Hollywood starts actively exploring the issues surrounding the conflict, it will probably have been over for about a decade.

To reiterate, I'm not saying that it's bad for films to be against the war, or that the issues being explored aren't important. I'm just saying that at this point it seems like these films are preaching to the choir. I believe that film, like any other artistic medium, has the power to influence people and change the world. It's just a shame that films which help shape the world for the worse (say... Triumph of the Will) come out at the right time, while those that could help shape the world for the better (say... Rendition, which explores policies ennacted under the Clinton administration, policies which seem tailor made for Bush's fight terror with terror strategy) come out when it's too late.

Monday, October 22, 2007

TCM: Better Than AMC (And Always Will Be)

Two years ago I was in seventh heaven after finding out that Turner Classic Movies and American Movie Classics would be added to our cable package. I quickly discovered that while tuning in to TCM is rarely a wrong move, tuning into AMC often leaves me frustrated. A few reasons why:

1. AMC, as its name suggests, exclusively shows American made films. It also uses the word "Classic" very loosely.

2. TCM has Robert Osborne and he is awesome.

3. When I watch a movie on TCM I don't have to see a bunch of ads for Mad Men...

4. In fact, when I watch movies on TCM, I don't have to see any ads at all, because they show movies the way that they should be seen - uncut and without commercial interruptions.

5. Variety. I swear to God, every time I turn on AMC they're playing either The Natural, Field of Dreams or Last of the Mohicans. Every. Goddamn. Time.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Review: Gone, Baby, Gone

As a fan of both the source novel and of Ben Affleck, I’ll admit that I went into this with my fingers crossed, just hoping that it didn’t get screwed up. It doesn’t; this is a great adaptation. It departs somewhat from the novel – the novel is the fourth in a series and in it Patrick Kenzie and Angie Genaro are seasoned pros; here they’re new to the game and their experience so far has been limited to looking for people who’ve skipped out on their creditors – but it gets the essence of the story just right. This is a film that is very comfortable with its place and with the people in it, and we come to know the rhythm of the city and the way that these people get around in it.

The plot: 4 year old Amanda McCready is kidnapped in the middle of the night. Her aunt (Amy Madigan) doesn’t think the police are doing enough to find her, so she hires Patrick (Casey Affleck) and Angie (Michelle Monaghan) to do some extra leg work. Pretty soon Patrick and Angie (mostly Patrick – I’ll get to that momentarily) are figuring out that things don’t exactly add up, drawing themselves into the line of fire and, ultimately, a moral conundrum.

The characters are tightly drawn and the performances are uniformly good, especially those of Amy Ryan and Ed Harris. Ryan is pitch perfect as the coked up mother of the kidnapped girl; if you’ve read the novel, you’ll think she walked right off the page and into the movie. Harris, playing the lead investigator who alternates between anger at Patrick for getting in his way, and admiration for Patrick’s ability, is very effective as the skewed moral compass of this dark and scary world. Together these two characters make a pretty effective argument for doing the wrongs things for the right reasons.

I only have two real qualms with the film, which is on the whole a solid effort by Affleck as both writer and director. First, the character of Angie. In the novels, she’s a force to be reckoned with, a tough talking ass kicker. In the film her presence is so far diminished that she barely registers. The character essentially exists to offer Patrick comfort when things look bleak and to act as a sounding board for his thoughts and theories. Admittedly the novels, like the movie, are told from Patrick’s point of view, but at least in the novels one didn’t get the sense that Angie was just along for the ride. She was always in the thick of things, starting as much trouble as Patrick does.

The other problem is the use of flashbacks, the style of which seems to have been ripped off from CSI. It is a complicated plot, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the audience needs to be reminded of something that happened five minutes ago in order to follow, and the flashbacks to things we hadn’t already seen could have been dealt with in a more effective way. As it is, they took me right out of the movie due largely to the aforementioned similarity to the CSI style of storytelling.

But these are minor problems in a movie that is overall very good. It’s well paced and suspenseful, even if you’re familiar with the book. Come Oscar time, the performance by Ryan and the screenplay by Affleck and Aaron Stockard will hopefully be remembered and rightly honoured.