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Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: Bobby, Volver, and Déjà Vu

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Navel Gazing with Burns and Dignan: Bobby, Volver, and Déjà Vu

Andrew Dignan: Hey Sean, is there anything more depressing than staring at Thanksgiving leftovers sitting in the fridge for a second week? Everyone loves turkey sandwiches the next day, but after half a dozen different variations of bird and stuffing (I feel like Bubba coming up with uses for shrimp) I’m seriously starting to resent that gutted-out carcass wrapped up in aluminum foil.

Incidentally, leftovers is the theme of this week’s column, as there isn’t a single new entry in theaters worth watching. It’s one of the worst kept secrets around that the first weekend in December is historically an undernourished stretch on exhibitors’ schedules, giving late August a run for its money as most barren wasteland on the calendar. Rather than endure Catherine Hardwicke’s The Nativity Story (can’t wait for the scene where Jesus wants to get a tongue stud and then gets into a fight with Mary over it) I thought we’d talk about a few films that have been out for a little while that we haven’t covered yet.

One such film is Emillio Estevez’s Bobby, which may be of special interest to House readers after a recently-linked review of the film from Jonathan Rosenbaum where the film was not only praised but used as damning counterpoint to Altman’s Nashville, which just goes to show that once all of your capacities as a film critic have left you, you can still pack ’em in by just being a contrarian. I’ll defer any Altman defending to you, but I’m frankly baffled how anyone could seriously consider Bobby anything but an overly earnest bit of hero worship buried amidst an especially pedestrian, multi-narrative melodrama. Basically what one can take away from the film is the rather jejune sentiment that everything and everyone in the world would be better off if Robert Kennedy wasn’t assassinated on June 4th, 1968 and that Estevez’s famous friends just aren’t working enough.

Assembling the best cast of 1997, Bobby follows two dozen employees and guests of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on that fateful day as they engage in an inter-connecting soap opera of various affairs, fistfights, far-out LSD freak-outs (Estevez should have his DGA card rescinded for this particular bit of awfulness) and of course plenty of moments of quiet-reflection about how “Bobby’s gonna change this country for the better.” This involves lots of staring pensively at the upper-right-hand corner of the frame while Mark Isham’s strings work-overtime and the viewer mentally inserts a “For Your Consideration” scroll across the bottom of the screen.

I could mention how repeated comparisons to The Love Boat are apt (the scenes between Helen Hunt and Martin Sheen are so painfully squishy you’d swear Emilio secretly hates his old man) and how Estevez’s wide-eyed sincerity and point-blank didacticism leads me to believe everything he learned about the era was from Stanley Kramer films. But what ultimately irks me the most is how the film leans upon the real life specter of Kennedy and the impending doom that will find him in the Ambassador kitchen to lend relevance to what amounts to a bunch of kids playing dress up. Like Paul Haggis’ Crash, Bobby offers up the least amount of information possible about these fictional characters to justify the machinations that leads them toward a senselessly violent conclusion—often by regurgitating exactly what’s on their mind in overly-emotive fashion, as though they’ve been instructed that they’ll each only be getting one close-up, so they damn well better make the most of it.

I can appreciate Estevez’s desire for a change of direction in this country’s political climate, and by holding up RFK as a well-spoken, introspective counterpoint to our current administration he’s being more proactive than most (although you haven’t felt real douche chills till you’ve heard an audience filled with Hollywood liberals breakout in repeated, spontaneous applause at a film for simply sharing its political beliefs). But the film is so terminally misguided in its methods, so school-play square in its execution, that he creates an environment where the idea of serious reflection is not only impossible, it’s downright laughable. A week ago I more or less let Darren Aronofsky’s equally earnest yet flawed The Fountain off the hook; is this film significantly worse or have I simply run out of holiday charity?

Sean Burns: Dude, it’s so much worse… and then some. The Rosenbaum riff you cited is hysterical on many fronts, first of all because it reveals, once again, that nothing gets J. Ro rolling like an opportunity to shovel dung onto a fresh corpse—I still recall hurling his book Movie Wars across my room after reading pages and pages of cheap shots at the recently departed Gene Siskel, simply because the still-warm dead guy didn’t frequent film festivals and often went to basketball games instead. (I guess critics are supposed to live monastic lives, devoid of outside interests. So if you want to be taken seriously after you’re dead, Andrew, you’d best not be taking a break from this piece to watch our Pats take on the Lions.) But his review is even funnier because it proves that, particularly in the case of Bobby, it doesn’t often matter how laughable or incompetent a movie might really be… as long as you tickle the right parts of your target audience’s ideological nether regions, even un film de Estevez will be taken seriously. I’m frankly baffled as how this flatly staged, horribly acted, made-for-cable-looking wank even made it into cinemas, besides the obvious explanation that Harvey Weinstein desperately needs an Oscar movie and if he has to move mountains and create one out of thin air, well… that’s what makes him Harvey Weinstein.

I’m 31 years old (at least for another month), so I’ve spent most of my life absorbing a popular culture overseen by a bunch of aging boomers who keep insisting that subsequent generations are inconsequential because “the sixties was when it all really mattered, man.” I’ve always had trouble with the mass-marketed, idealistic rose-tinted view of this era, because I came of age in what’s probably the tail-end of that time when a lot of fathers were profoundly scarred by the war in Vietnam, and thus I’ve spent way too many afternoons listening to too many Dads tell too many similar stories in which they got home safe only to be spat upon, fucked with, and called “baby-killers” by a bunch of rich college students trying on their first handlebar mustache. As such, I have an exceedingly low tolerance for flower-power pieties.

But what’s fascinating to me about Bobby is that this isn’t just another boomer force-feed. It’s such a weird ersatz nostalgia trip because Estevez, who was six when these events took place, seems not to be working not to recreate the era itself, but to enshrine the most banal, facile and reductive representations that we’ve been bombarded with ever since. (I love how the only two movies that exist in Bobby’s 1968 are The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde.) It’s tacky and phony, roughly akin to what would happen if I set out to make a decade-defining movie about the 1950’s based exclusively upon what I’d gleaned from American Graffiti and Happy Days.

I’m also not sure what the boring marital spats of a bunch of bit players who used to be famous for a little while back in the 1980’s and early 90’s have to do with the life and times of Bobby Kennedy. (I suspect nothing.) It’s all so fake and so forced, and Estevez hasn’t the slightest interest in actual history. (If I’m not mistaken, the marriage exemption ended in 1965, thus negating Elijah Wood and Lindsay Lohan’s storyline.) And is there anything more horribly dishonest than giving several of your main characters grueling and protracted death scenes in the Ambassador’s kitchen, only to casually announce ten minutes later via an onscreen title card that everybody, sans RFK, survived the shooting? This is just exploitative garbage.

I’ll stick with Robert Altman, thank you very much. Jonathan Rosenbaum can keep the fine auteur Emilio Estevez all to himself. What else is in the news, Robin?

~

AD: A thought I’ve been giving a fair amount of thought to lately is the idea of a “critical blindspot.” These are films or artists that never quite resonate with you in any substantial way, no matter how much you appreciate the intent or execution, and no matter how many passionate and knowledgeable people have lent their voices to the discussion and defense of said artistry. I’d never be so arrogant to toss around the expression “overrated”—and this is a topic probably better suited for this site’s 5 for the Day feature—but there’s no denying that some sacred cows leave you cold. I guess that’s a really roundabout way of saying I still don’t “get” Almodóvar. His latest, Volver, falls into the same analytical phantom zone where I cannot consciously object to anything presented in the film (most especially Penélope Cruz’s hot-blooded performance). Considering how many mutually-exclusive mini-genres the film jumps between, Almodóvar handles the tonal shifts with minimal transitional jar. The whole film feels like an affectionate hug without judgment or prejudice—something made all the more remarkable as it presents us with a cast of murderers, liars, prostitutes and thieves.

I’m appreciative of the way the film cleverly tweaks the conventions of the “ghost film,” playing the “spectral” Carmen Maura and her interactions with the women of the film with such unblinking candor that when the (in hindsight obvious) mechanics behind the phenomenon are finally revealed, I was stunned at how gobsmacked I felt. The film tenderly understands the obvious and subtle ways in which the dead continue to speak to us; haunting us (literally, or in this film’s case, figuratively) while inspiring the living in their day-to-day existence. I also must commend Mr. Almodóvar for bringing out the earthy beauty of Ms. Cruz, doing more for a push-up bra and Jersey hair than anyone since Drea de Matteo.

And yet… The film began to dissipate like cotton candy on my tongue just about the second sunlight hit my eyes exiting the theatre. I can’t think of a more frustrating (albeit familiar) phenomenon. Even now, mere hours after seeing Volver, I’m struggling to take anything away from Volver beyond “this film really cares for its women characters” which is pretty much what I take away from every Almodóvar film. I guess my question is then, can a movie check off every box in your head and still underwhelm by design? Is a shrug an acceptable response to a film, and for that matter a filmmaker, widely hailed by both the mainstream press and the online community as a masterpiece? (For a look at the film that doesn’t amount to a 500-word variation on “it was pretty good, I guess” might I recommend Ryland Walker Knight’s recent article.) All I know is, I feel like a blind man at an orgy. The film’s charms aren’t lost on me, they’re just mostly inconsequential. You’ve had more time to process Volver than I have; please tell me what I’m missing so I can get on this damn bandwagon already.

SB: I think I know exactly what you’re getting at here. It’s not that I dislike Almodóvar at all, in fact, I’ve enjoyed most of the pictures that I’ve seen quite a bit. But I also don’t find myself thinking about his movies all that often. I admire his use of color, his scope compositions, and let’s face it—this guy just plain loves tits. But it’s funny you should point out the fact that I’ve had more time to process the movie, because even though I saw Volver less than one month ago, I just found myself forced to dig out and re-read my own review, to refresh my memory as to what it was actually about. I fondly recall leaving the theater with a warm and generous feeling, but that, plus all those loving, lingering shots of Cruz’ wonderfully padded backside were all that lodged in my brain. (I wonder why.)

So yeah, anything that evaporates so quickly provides pretty much the definition of slight, which I guess then makes it doubly strange when remembering that Volver happens to be stuffed silly with murder, incest and terminal illness. There is something fascinating about the way Almodóvar is able breeze through some seriously objectionable content without the audience ever feeling so much as a speed bump. He’s definitely got a unique little low-key melodrama thing going these days, sort of a Douglas Sirk-by-way-of-Telenovelas M.O. that seems to have mellowed and sweetened with age.

But I think you’ve hit upon a nifty piece of critical heresy with this “blindspot theory,” as I know too well that we in this absolutist game are never, ever supposed to admit that there might be some finely crafted, perfectly good thing out there that’s “just not our bag.” (It probably holds true for many aspects of life, as I’m now thinking about those strange and unfortunate episodes every few months when I decide to “act more adult” by trying to drink wine instead of beer, and forcing myself to like jazz.) Of course, it could also be that you and I are still just a couple of stunted little boys who like to watch shit blow up, which I believe brings us to our next movie…

~

Andrew Dignan: Yes. I feel infinitely more qualified to kick around Tony Scott’s latest exercise in ADHD, Déjà Vu, the sort of vaguely-insulting action film I’d probably get stuck taking my dad to over the holidays if the new James Bond film wasn’t playing 3-screens down the hall. Skirting the line between loud dumb fun and the most offensive film of the year, Déjà Vu does to the helicopter zoom-in and re-focus what The Shining did to the steadicam. Scott, whose filmmaking by way of speed-freak always struck me as a concerted effort on his part to distance himself from big brother Ridley’s hermetically-sealed compositions, seems to be watering down the espresso somewhat since the seizure-inducing Domino, but I continue to be amazed at an ethos that employs six shots to cover a line of dialogue when one would do just fine.

Set amidst a still recovering New Orleans, Déjà Vu finds Denzel Washington as a rogue ATF agent investigating a deadly ferry bombing by a Right-Wing nut job played by Jim Caviezel in a very un-Jesus-like performance (I wonder if he got any pointers from Mel) that killed 500-people and left in its wake a beautiful victim (Paula Patton) who just might be the key to unraveling the mystery.

Working with one of Jerry Bruckheimer’s patented geek squads lead by Adam Goldberg (who spouts out a steady stream of pop culture references sure to be dated by the time you finish reading this), Washington uses super-duper fancy satellite technology from the plot-device research facility to observe Patton’s character 4-days in the past, slowly beginning to fall in love with the flickering images of a dead woman as he watches with sickening realization that with each passing moment he’s drawing closer to watching this woman die.

Even with all the look the other way reasoning required to get there, that’s a pretty cool premise right? This certainly isn’t the first film to play with the idea of a man falling in love with the idea of a dead woman (The Constant Gardner is a recent example of the gimmick being especially effective), but watching Denzel as he’s drawn in deeper and deeper into a life that he knows will be cut short lends a sort of tragic inevitability to what’s otherwise a pretty standard shoot-em up. Sometimes being a movie star means finding the heart in staring at a computer monitor, and as though he were starring in a flashier version of The Conversation, Washington’s obsession is contagious.

But faster than you can say “Timecop” the film is busting apart its own flimsy sense of logic, sending Denzel back in time to save the girl and the ferry, get the bad guy and ride off into the sunset. The entire third act of the film feels like a note from a fidgety studio exec along the lines of “wouldn’t it be nicer if no one had to die?” resulting in some truly-eye rolling techno-geek exposition just to make sure the pretty lady lives. Oh yeah, and if you’ve got time to save all the people on the boat, well that’s good too.

If the lives of hundreds of men, women and children feels like something of an afterthought next to that of a potential love interest, don’t worry, they’re in good company. That’s pretty much how the film feels about integrating its pseudo-science into a narrative chock full of car chases and photo-realistic explosions (what a lovely side-effect of 9/11, no?) while exploiting the still open wounds of Katrina. (For more on this, see Dan Jardine’s review.) Déjà Vu steps right over the time travel paradox of Twelve Monkeys and dances around the questions of pre-determination posed by Minority Report. Ultimately it’s more interested in high-concept thrills and “gotcha” twists than in exploring the pesky ethical questions that were the focus of those previous films. If you’re not going to use the genre correctly, don’t use it at all.

SB: At the risk of being dragged behind the woodshed by Dan Jardine, I don’t think this is quite such a terrible film… at least not for the first 90 minutes or so. After the stroboscopic spectacles of Man on Fire and Domino, I feared I would never again see a Tony Scott film that wasn’t cut like one of those “blipverts” that made people’s brains explode on the old Max Headroom TV series. Déjà Vu is actually pretty kinetically restrained, at last as far as the Scott brothers go. And you’ve got to say something for a movie that manages to be visually interesting even though 60% of the running time is spent watching other characters watch the movie you’re watching.

Too bad about that script, though. Penned by Bill Marsilii and Pirates of the Carribbean perpetrator Terry Rossio, Déjà Vu spends far too much time over-explaining the arbitrary, usually plot-driven restrictions of that central time-machine device. Don’t screenwriters understand that the less time you spend telling us how something works, the less time we have to pick holes in your goofy logic? They even give themselves a great, easy out, when Goldberg says: “We were trying to do something else and this happened. So we don’t know how it works.” In any other movie, that should have been more than enough.

It did ultimately lose me when we veered into Timecop territory. Is it just me, or was there a pronounced lack of urgency on the hero’s part when it came to stopping the bomb? He seemed entirely too relaxed when reminding his new not-dead-yet girlfriend: “Don’t forget, we’ve got to get to the dock by nine if we’re going to save those people’s lives.” I half-expected them to stop for coffee and donuts along the way.

I’ve learned that this isn’t the right room in which to try to sticking up for Tony Scott, but after being so disappointed in his last couple pictures, I was happy to see with Déjà Vu that (in addition to holding shots for almost three full seconds at a time) he remembered how to hang back and let his actors have some fun. More so than any other director on Jerry Bruckheimer’s hack assembly line, Scott seems to encourage his casts to add their own hammy little idiosyncrasies—think of those nifty, scene-stealing performances in True Romance, The Last Boy Scout, or even Enemy of the State. I was intrigued here not just by Val Kilmer’s alarming weight gain, but also the amusing bits of business he kept inventing to do with his eyeglasses during all the exposition. Ditto for Goldberg’s obvious ad-libs. And really, is there anyone as effortlessly charming as Denzel Washington? There’s not even a character here for him to play, and he still comes at the role with movie-star charisma to burn. I’d happily watch him in anything, even a stupid little time-waster like this one.